San Diego Zoo races to vaccinate lions, tigers and other vulnerable species as COVID surges

Five tigers now have the coronavirus. Zoo and Safari Park staff are vaccinating about 250 animals.

8/4/2021 8:33:00 AM

For subscribers: San Diego Zoo races to vaccinate lions, tigers and other vulnerable species as COVID surges

Five tigers now have the coronavirus. Zoo and Safari Park staff are vaccinating about 250 animals.

AdvertisementThe organization has also continued to vaccinate animals at both parks. Those efforts began in late January, when the zoo inoculated some of its orangutans and bonobos, marking the first time apes were immunized against the virus.And while trying to poke a wild animal with a needle might sound like a recipe for disaster, it’s something zoo and Safari Park staff do routinely through a combination of coaxing and conditioning.

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Amara, 12, a female cheetah, is about to receive reinforced training in the “side-up technique,” which allows veterinarians to examine animals or administer medical procedures.(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)For Amara the cheetah, that means bribing the cat with a yummy morsel of meat or a “bloodsicle,” a frozen chunk of blood for her to lick while she sidles up to the edge of her cage for a quick poke. And for Johnny the coati, a distant relative of the racoon, that means enticing him with a spoonful of honey inside a plastic container, prompting him to stick his head inside while a vet administers the vaccine.

Jennifer Hardell, wildlife care specialist at the Safari Park, works with Johnny, a 7-year-old coati. When he puts his head inside the container, he gets honey, and staffers can perform routine examinations and administer vaccines.(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune) headtopics.com

“I would say in easily greater than 75% of the animals that I’ve vaccinated, they don’t even react,” said Dr. Daniel Fredholm, a veterinarian who’s given coronavirus vaccines to about 40 animals at the Safari Park.Staff generally avoid anesthetizing animals whenever possible, Peterson said, because they want to avoid any side effects from anesthesia and would rather have the wildlife willingly participate in their own healthcare. So when an animal gets up and walks away before a veterinarian can deliver the shot, they usually just try again later.

In other cases, keepers use what they call a medical squeeze, a narrow metal crate that the animals have learned to walk into and where a vet delivers a shot through a hole in the side. Oddly enough, the hard part is getting them to walk out at the end, according to Annette Russel, member of the Safari Park’s wildlife care team.

“They don’t want to leave,” she said. “They get so reinforced in there and stay. ‘No, I’m being an A-plus student. Where’s my good stuff?’ It takes more work to have them exit it than to go in.”The organization is getting vaccine doses from Zoetis, an animal health company once part of Pfizer. The company’s vaccine, which has been cleared only for use in animals, sparks immunity against the coronavirus by delivering a piece of the surface protein the virus uses to grab onto and infect cells.

AdvertisementThe vaccine requires two doses, spaced two weeks apart, for full immunity. Once staff finish administering first doses this week, they’ll begin giving out second doses. Three of the tigers that recently tested positive for the coronavirus had received their first vaccine dose days before they tested positive but had not gotten their second shot. headtopics.com

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