Zoo vaccinates high-risk species for COVID-19

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published September 8, 2021

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ROYAL OAK — The Detroit Zoological Society has started vaccinating zoo animals believed to be most susceptible to COVID-19 with a special vaccine developed exclusively for animals.

The vaccine, developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, has been authorized on a case-by-case basis by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, said the zoo animals routinely get other vaccinations.

“Many of the mammals are trained to present themselves to our animal care staff for minor medical procedures, including vaccinations,” Carter said in a prepared statement. “We’re both thankful and relieved a special vaccine is now available to protect against COVID-19.”

So far, the animals at the Detroit Zoo to receive the first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations are gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers and lions, according to a Detroit Zoo press release.

Zoo animals across the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, including several lions, tigers, leopards and gorillas, and a tiger and a lion have died from the virus in European and Indian zoos, according to the release.

While no animals at the Detroit Zoo have contracted COVID-19 to date, the Detroit Zoological Society’s safety protocols include requiring full personal protective equipment for staff and barriers to ensure that the public stays a safe distance from at-risk animals.

“Much like we vaccinate dogs for things like parvovirus, distemper or rabies, this is needed to protect animals at the zoo,” Dr. Ann Duncan, director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society, said in a prepared statement.

Headquartered in Kalamazoo, Zoetis is donating more than 11,000 doses to 70 zoos, as well as more than a dozen conservatories, sanctuaries and other organizations across 27 states, according to the release.

Duncan said she was first notified by Zoetis in April that the company was developing a vaccine and wanted to distribute it to zoos. She said the company had to get permission from the USDA and state veterinary offices in each state that wanted to participate.

“It’s very generous,” she said. “It would be more difficult for us to provide care to a sick tiger or a sick gorilla, so that’s why we think it’s really important to be able to protect zoo animals. We’d hate to lose an animal if there’s a way to protect them.”

Duncan added that the zoo is halfway done vaccinating its animals, with the otters, other primates, wolverines and a handful of other species planned to be vaccinated.

“This is a special vaccine and lot number only to be used for zoo animals,” she said. “The vaccine has been tested in animals and was found to be safe.”

She added that she is grateful to have the vaccine made available for Detroit Zoo animals.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, you can’t get close to any of the animals at risk,” Duncan said. “(The main concern) is mostly about the care staff and the people who are behind the scenes caring for the animals. An asymptomatic person might infect an animal, and this will protect against that.”

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road, west of Woodward Avenue.

For more information, call (248) 541-5717 or visit detroitzoo.org.