By Joseph Goldstein
(Republished from The New York Times) A tiger at the Bronx Zoo has been infected with the coronavirus, in what is believed to be a case of what one official called “human-to-cat transmission.”
“This is the first instance of a tiger being infected with COVID-19,” according to the federal Agriculture Department, which noted that although only one tiger was tested, the virus appeared to have infected other animals as well.
“Several lions and tigers at the zoo showed symptoms of respiratory illness,” according to a statement by the department. They are expected to recover.
Public health officials believe that the large cats caught COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, from a zoo employee.
“That’s the assumption, that one of the keepers who was asymptomatic or shedding the virus before they were sick was the source of the infection,” Dr. Paul Calle, chief veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo, said in a phone interview.
While the zookeepers generally keep a barrier between themselves and the cats, they do get within a few feet of the animals. “During the course of feeding and doing enrichment they will come within feet of them but on opposite sides of the barrier,” he said.
The tiger, a 4-year-old Malayan tiger named Nadia, appeared visibly sick by March 27.
Her sister Azul and two Amur tigers are also sick. They live in the zoo’s Tiger Mountain enclosure. Another tiger that lives in the same place has “not exhibited any clinical signs,” according to a statement by the zoo.
“There is no evidence that other animals in other areas of the zoo are showing symptoms,” the Agriculture Department said.
Lyndsay M. Cole, assistant director of public affairs for the department’s animal and plant inspection service, said there have been no reports of sickened animals in other zoos in the United States.
The Bronx Zoo, one of the largest in the United States and one of New York’s top attractions, houses roughly 6,000 animals.
And zoos, unlike museums or Broadway theaters, cannot entirely shut down. Animals still need to be cared for and checked on. Penguin chicks might require help after they hatch. Captive tigers, alligators and grizzly bears probably should not be left to their own devices.
“The animals that we care for rely on us for everything,” Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo, told The Times last week before the coronavirus case had been confirmed.
The zoo closed to the public on March 16 and since then about 300 workers of its 700-plus staff were deemed “essential” to care for animals and maintain the zoo’s operations.
They are split in half into two teams, which report on alternating weeks, maintaining social distancing to protect the animals, while providing hay to American bison or offering fish to hungry Magellanic penguins.
“The animals are blissfully unaware of what the rest of us have been going through,” said Mr. Breheny, whose first job at age 14 was staffing the zoo’s camel rides.
The tiger was the only animal tested because the procedure involved general anesthesia, the Agriculture Department said. While there were other tigers and lions showing similar symptoms, the veterinarian wanted to limit the potential risks of general anesthesia to one animal, it said.
“We had a sick tiger and we needed to treat the tiger and know what the cause of the illness was so we could care for it,” Dr. Calle said.
A pet cat in Belgium recently tested positive for the coronavirus, but the American Veterinary Medical Association said that not enough was known to change the current view that neither cats nor dogs appear to be able to pass the virus to people.
A scientific study in China, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that the virus reproduces “efficiently” in cats and can be transmitted by respiratory droplets, but this was in laboratory conditions. The report did not say what kind of symptoms the cats experienced, if any.
Another report, which has also not yet been peer reviewed, concluded on the basis of blood tests that cats had been infected in Wuhan. The World Organisation for Animal Health says that there is no evidence that cats or dogs spread the disease to humans, but that anyone who is sick should take precautions in contact with their animals as they would with people.
There have been no known reports of pets becoming sick with Covid-19 in the United States. But the Agriculture Department recommended that people who have the virus limit contact with animals.
“If you are sick with Covid-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food,” the department said.
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