New measures are in place at Phoenix Zoo to keep its animals safe from COVID-19

In January 2020, several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo became sick with the virus that causes COVID-19, and it was a wake-up call for keepers at the Phoenix Zoo to implement more precautions and increase vigilance.

Phoenix Zoo Senior Carnivore Keeper Carl Stone always kept a safe distance when feeding the zoo's Sumatran Tigers. Nowadays, however, six feet has an entirely different meaning.

"It was almost a surprise. We were taking precautions immediately with our primates," said Stone. "Just because of their close genetic relationship to humans, we expected them to be vulnerable, but we weren't expecting cats to be the first ones to show signs of having the virus."

Tigers, like humans, are at risk for contracting COVID-19.

"We try to be more proactive with ourselves. We try to monitor our personal health because even we can pass it onto the cats," said Stone.

"When we go into zoo medicine, we are very much aware of the one health concept where animals and human and environmental health is very connected, and this is a prime example," said Phoenix Zoo Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Kristin Phair.

Dr. Phair says zookeepers started to change daily routines in spring 2020, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 to animals that are at the highest risk.

"Because a tamandua is a COVID-restricted animal, we can no longer take him out because he would be interacting with the public, and just things the publics touched," said Phoenix Zoo Ambassador Animal Resources Keeper Sue Tacho.

Al, the Tamandua at Phoenix Zoo, is susceptible to the virus. Meanwhile, armadillos and bats can get COVID-19 as well, and these animals are part of the zoo's Animal Ambassador Program. Nowadays, keepers cannot take them out and risk exposure.

"It has their individual fruit and their starch, and then, what we will do is things put them in lunch bags, and we will toss them around the exhibit. We throw them on the top of the mesh, so they have to climb to interact," said Phoenix Zoo Senior Primate Keeper, Jessica Hintz.

Hintz wears a mask and gloves when handling food, in addition to keeping a socially safe distance. She says the orangutans miss the interaction with keepers, so enrichment is offered in other ways,

Meanwhile, safety has to be the top priority.

"Almost anything that we can get, they can get. We're just genetically so close," said Hintz.

Drastic measures are also being taken to keep the black-footed ferrets safe.

"They are descended from an extremely small number of animals from the wild. They're a little bit genetically depauperate, so we are concerned that they may not be able to fight off illnesses as well as some other animals," said Tara Harris, Phoenix Zoo Director of Conservation and Science.

The Phoenix Zoo is home to only one of six facilities in the world breeding black-footed ferrets back to the wild. Nowadays, plexiglass has been put up around cages, a limited number of staff members are allowed in, and those allowed in have to wear PPE from head to toe.

While the zoo is open to the public, and all precautions are being taken among guests, it's the animals that vets and keepers are most concerned with, and a protocol is in place if a positive case is detected.

"I think we would first monitor, but then, probably, we would have to alert our state veterinarian if we had a high level of concern," said Dr. Phair. "Probably looking at our employees in that area and finding out if anyone else is clinical at that point at that time as well."

Dr. Phair says if the state vet orders a COVID-19 test, they would be done just like they are on people: a nasal or oral swab, or a blood test.

All of the keepers, including Stone, make sure there's plenty of space, but they're also keeping a close eye on behavior, making sure the animals keep their energy and appetite up, which are both signs that something could be wrong.

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