UPDATE October 18, 2021: The lions and tigers who tested presumptive positive for COVID-19 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo the week of Sept. 13 are recovering well. All lions and tigers are behaving, eating, and drinking normally.

Primate keeper Erin Stromberg administers the Zoetis vaccine to 24-year-old Bornean orangutan Kyle. Photo credit: Becky Malinsky, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Zoo animal care staff also administered the first round of animal-specific COVID vaccines on Oct. 13. All seven orangutans, one western lowland gorilla, one white-eared titi monkey, and two emperor tamarins received shots. Veterinarians and keepers are closely monitoring the vaccinated animals and have not observed any side effects.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized the use of a SARS-COV-2 vaccine made specifically for animals by Zoetis. All 11 animals will receive a second dose of the vaccine.

Vaccines will continue to be administered to select animals identified as susceptible species at the Zoo and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, in the coming months. The lions and tigers will receive the vaccine no sooner than 90 days post-infection. The Zoo’s other COVID-19 safety and response protocols are in place and continue to be strictly followed.

Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger, and two Amur tigers have tested presumptively positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Last weekend, animal keepers observed decreased appetites, coughing, sneezing, and lethargy in several lions and tigers. Fecal samples for all great cats were collected and tested presumptive positive. Final results are expected in the next few days.

Male African lion, Luke, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Photo Credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

All lions and tigers are being treated with anti-inflammatories and anti-nausea medication to address discomfort and decreased appetite. In addition, all are being treated with antibiotics for presumptive secondary bacterial pneumonia. They remain under close observation and, because their condition does not require them remain inside, staff will manage the cats’ access to their outdoor habitats. Given the substantial distance between the animals and visitors, the public is not at risk. No other animals at the Zoo are showing any signs of infection. 

The health and safety of Smithsonian staff, animals and visitors is our number one priority. The Zoo’s existing COVID-19 protocols restrict behind-the-scenes access in all animal areas and require use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, employee self-screening and health management. The Zoo’s COVID safety and response protocols are in place and being strictly followed.  

The Zoo has conducted a thorough investigation of all staff that were in close proximity to the lions and tigers. There is no evidence to pinpoint the source of the infection. While it is possible the infection was transmitted by an asymptomatic carrier, it has been standard practice for all animal care staff and essential staff to mask indoors in all public and non-public areas. The health and vaccination status of employees is confidential medical information.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized the use of a SARS-COV-2 vaccine made specifically for zoo animals by Zoetis. The first round of vaccine disbursement will be administered to select animals identified as a susceptible species at both the Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia when it becomes available in the coming months.  

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