By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Did you know that human beings aren’t the only creatures who have been suffering from the beastly Covid-19 pandemic? Across this great land of ours, more than 80 zoos — including major ones in San Diego, Chicago (Brookfield), New Orleans (Audubon), Washington, D.C. (National), and New York City (Bronx) — have been compelled to vaccinate their animals.
Yes, critters can get coronavirus. Great apes and monkeys, lions and tigers and bears (Oh, my!), pandas, hyenas, otters, and even fruit bats are susceptible. So to a lesser degree are domestic cats and dogs (see story in next week’s issue). Animal symptoms include the usual coughing, sneezing, lethargy and digestive upsets. Most recover, though a snow leopard in North Dakota and a lion in Hawaii have died of Covid.
Animal coronavirus vaccines have been around since the 1950s, mainly as protection for livestock. (Covid-19 is a coronavirus variant.) A poultry version can wreak havoc with a hen’s reproductive system and stop the bird from laying eggs. Cattle can develop respiratory infections and diarrhea (call it the battle of bull runs). A particularly virulent strain that affects pigs killed millions of them in the U.S. in the early 2000s.
The latest version went into production after two pooches contracted Covid in Hong Kong last year. It’s made by the veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis Global Biologics and authorized for experimental use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a case-by-case basis. (It’s not needed for popular pets at this time, but the goal is to have the vaccine ready for them just in case.) Zoos began asking for a Covid-19 vaccine in the spring of 2020 after a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo became the first animal in the U.S. known to test positive. Zoetis, formerly a subsidiary of Pfizer, has donated thousands of doses.
Finding a one-size-fits-all drug for more than 100 different species is a challenge. The key is choosing the right adjuvant, the compound that is added to viral material in order to help stimulate the body’s immune system. Some adjuvants slowly release the viral material and prolong the immune response. Others provoke a quicker, more intense response that can trigger allergic reactions or other side effects, depending on the species.
Zoos are using an adjuvant they feel is safe across the board, but another problem is that coronaviruses come in many variations and often mutate, creating a need for new vaccines. Fortunately, existing ones gave Zoetis a starting point for their Covid-19 variation.
Animals ordinarily get some routine shots to protect against maladies such as rabies and tetanus, but mass vaccination campaigns haven’t been needed since an outbreak of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus 20 years ago. Immunizing them becomes more crucial when Covid can jump from animal to animal and even species to species.
An outbreak among gorillas at the San Diego Zoo is likely to have been caused by an infected zookeeper. Minks (which are farmed for their fur) can transmit Covid to humans and vice versa. Zoetis is testing the vaccine in minks for the sake of getting a provisional license from the USDA, which is basically an animal emergency use authorization. There’s also worry that domesticated animals will contaminate wildlife and thus create natural reservoirs of Covid that are basically uncontrollable.
The strategy at most zoos is to start with 10 primates and follow with doses for big cats and mustelids (weasels, martens, skunks, badgers, and so on). The vaccination process is much like with people: two shots, 21 days apart. So far, side effects have been rarely reported. Arm soreness was suspected in vaccinated gorillas and a brown bear seemed to grumble about some discomfort at its injection spot.
Delivering shots to zoo animals is done a little differently from giving humans the jab. Zookeepers must convince some, such as gorillas and other primates, to lean against a mesh barrier. Cats and mustelids may have to sit on a log. Once they’re comfy, keepers desensitize them to the coming poke by giving them treats while tapping them with a popsicle stick, then a dull needle, and finally the real thing followed by a sweet treat as a reward.
If it’s any consolation, many zoo animals are living under many of the same restrictions we are, including social distancing, quarantine and limited visitors. Zoos are requiring staff members to wear masks and gloves, avoid prolonged contact with infected animals, and stay home when feeling ill. (Senator Rand Paul has yet to comment on the tyranny of it all.)
Despite the inconvenience and temporary discomfort, our fine furry and feathered friends have been quite cooperative about the whole thing.
"Due to the respectful and trusting relationships developed between the animals and care staff, many of the zoo’s animals voluntarily participate in their own health care, in this case holding still while veterinary staff administers the vaccination," Brookfield Zoo said in a release.
Too bad we humans aren’t as cooperative. To my knowledge and to their likely credit, weasels haven’t started circulating conspiracy theories to persuade other critters that the virus is a hoax and the vaccine is merely an attempt to secretly microchip them so they can be tracked by the government. Animals apparently know that’s already being done with traditional methods such as bracelets and ear tags, whereas some humans are still unaware that they have long been tracked via cell phones, web browsers and credit cards.
Nevertheless, "We're all in this together," Oakland Zoo CEO Nik Deheja told ABC News. "This is not just a human problem. It's a human and animal problem. So if we can cooperatively share our understanding, it'll be better for everybody."
Indeed. Perhaps the recalcitrant among us, the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers in particular, should make like Dr. Doolittle and talk to the animals.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.