Two zoos, in Denver and Oakland, have begun vaccinating their big cats and primates, some of the animals most at-risk of contracting the coronavirus.

By Austin Cannon
July 08, 2021
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tiger getting a vaccination through chain link fence
Credit: Courtesy of Oakland Zoo

Some of the first animals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine are seemingly straight out of The Wizard of Oz: lions, tigers, and bears. 

Normally I wouldn't lead off a story with such a cliche—and risk death at the hands of former editing professors in the process—but that's who was first in line to get a coronavirus vaccine at the Oakland Zoo late last month: tigers, black and grizzly bears, and mountain lions. 

The vaccine will hopefully help prevent our zoo animals from contracting COVID-19, especially from us humans who might visit zoos while unknowingly carrying the virus. 

Animal health care company Zoetis has donated more than 11,000 doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine to about 80 zoos, sanctuaries, conservatories, academic institutions, and governmental operations, Zoetis said in a news release. Two of the almost 70 zoos were the Oakland and Denver zoos. 

Ferrets joined the tigers, bears, and mountain lions as the high-risk animals who received the first of their two doses after the Oakland Zoo received its share of vaccines June 29. Chimpanzees, fruit bats, and pigs are next on the list. So far, the animals who received the vaccine are "doing great," zoo spokeswoman Erin Harrison told CNN.

According to KUNC, the Denver Zoo will vaccinate its big cats and primates first—but not its fruit bats because they have minimal contact with humans and vaccinating so many of them would prove challenging. 

The vaccines are another shield for the animals, along with zookeepers wearing PPE and barriers at exhibits that enforce social distancing, Alex Herman, vice president of Veterinary services at Oakland Zoo, said in the news release. 

"We're happy and relieved to now be able to better protect our animals with this vaccine," Herman added in a statement. 

Why Zoo Animals Need a COVID-19 Vaccine

In the simplest of terms, they need it because the virus can make them sick as well. Apes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park contracted the virus earlier this year and were then the first to receive doses of the experimental Zoetis vaccine.

The first known zoo animal to contract the virus was a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Since then, other zoo animals have become infected, most often after coming in contact with humans carrying the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. In some cases, animals contract it from their caretakers, even though the humans were wearing PPE. 

(That's why you should social-distance away from your pets if you think you've caught the virus.) 

However, there is still "no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people," the CDC says. 

The Zoetis vaccine is similar to its human counterparts in dosage—two shots, three weeks apart—but it's designed differently based on the substance that delivers the vaccine's antigens (known as the adjuvant), Zeotis says in its news release. The pharmaceutical company originally began designing the vaccine for domesticated dogs and cats. Infections for those pets are rare, so United States pet parents aren't lining up for pet vaccines, but that hasn't stopped countries like Russia.