The 'Zoo' in Zoonotic: Will COVID-19 Infections and Financial Considerations Prove the Death Knell for Zoos?
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From Animals & Society Institute
February 2021

New scientific modelling suggests even more species of animals kept in zoos are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.

zoo Lion

Despite precautions that were taken, in early January 2021 the first of three Silverback gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park contracted COVID-19, presumably from an asymptomatic staff member. Concern was high for one particular member of the troop, when a 48-year-old elder named Winston with heart disease developed pneumonia. This is not the first such zoonotic crossover seen is zoos, and cats seem particularly susceptible. Tigers and/or lions have contracted the coronavirus from humans at the Bronx, Knoxville, and Barcelona, Spain, zoos, and a tiger recently was euthanized at a Swedish zoo after her condition deteriorated.

The widespread unease about zoonotic diseases generally focuses on those that travel from nonhuman animal to human, where the concern is the possibility of another human pandemic brought about by such transmission. This is not a misplaced anxiety. The last thing we need at this point is another zoonotic disease moving from an animal reservoir into the human population already struggling with the year-long SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The case of Winston and his troop, however, highlights the issue of zoonoses (formerly called zooanthroponoses) moving in the other direction—from human to animal. Outside of zoos, companion cats and a few dogs, farmed mink, and various other primates have proven susceptible catching the COVID-19 virus from humans. Experimental laboratory studies have shown hamsters and ferrets susceptible and, although no cases among domestic livestock have been documented, pigs were recently added to the list of susceptible animals. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 100 animals in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These include companion, as well as larger, animals.

After a year of research, we are getting a sense of with whom we share this virus, and the list of species continues to grow. An October 2020 study in Nature assessed which other species might be susceptible to infection by modeling the major proteins that SARS-Cov-2 uses for cell entry. The study looked specifically at animals with whom humans come into close contact in domestic, agricultural, or zoological settings. The researchers identified 26 mammals at high risk, such as horses, goats, pigs, cows, sheep, rabbits, Guinea pigs, and Chinese and Golden hamsters. Specific to zoos, high-risk animals included Arabian camels, pandas, polar bears, wild yaks and other primates. To be clear, not all of the animal species shown through this modelling to be susceptible have yet contracted the disease—but the list of individuals who have done so continues to grow. With this in mind and given the large number of animals kept in close proximity within many zoos, the possibility of more, and perhaps different, animals contracting COVID-19 within zoos does not seem out of the question. Furthermore, the case of Winston and his troop shows that even less-restrictive scenarios like zoological parks are not free from this concern.

This is neither the first nor the only challenge zoos have faced during the pandemic. Pandemic-related closures and resulting steep revenue losses have left zoos worldwide struggling to care for and feed hungry animals. As early as last spring, a German zoo approached its government with requests for emergency aid lest they be forced to kill some animals to feed others. Although some countries provided their zoos with COVID relief, as of this month the situation remains dire in the UK (also, here and here), and we can imagine elsewhere.

Amidst calls for governments to step in to help financially vulnerable zoos, a new publication by Angie Pepper and Kristin Voigt, “Covid-19 and the Future of Zoos” lays out the problems with this approach, and provides a possible “positive proposal.” They argue that “While we and our governments have a responsibility to ensure the protection of animals in struggling zoos, it is morally impermissible to make private donations or state subsidies to zoos because such actions serve to perpetuate an unjust institution. In order to protect zoo animals without perpetrating further injustice, governments should subsidize the transformation of zoos into sanctuaries and then facilitate the gradual closure of most of these sanctuaries.”

Pepper and Voight admit that their “proposal is unlikely to garner mass appeal, and that support for zoos remains depressingly widespread.” As pointed out by Ken Shapiro in his 2018 piece, “Whither Zoos? An Inescapable Question” (and see below), “the long history, current popularity, and economics of zoo and aquarium enterprises” makes the possibility of zoos as we know them ceasing to exist unlikely. However, in that work Shapiro mused that a “triggering event” might break the logjam caused by balance between the desire for change and the fear of change regarding zoos. Is it possible the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on zoos might be that event?

While the future of zoos remains uncertain, we can be heartened that the COVID-infected Silverback troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are eating, drinking, and interacting. Winston the elder Silverback is doing well following treatment with heart medications, antibiotics, and monoclonal antibody therapy.

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