SALT LAKE CITY — How do you give a lion a COVID-19 test? Very, very carefully.
When the lion pride at Utah's Hogle Zoo came down with COVID-19 last year, the zoo took a number of precautions to test and treat them.
"A long swab just like you get when you go get your test," said Dr. Erika Crook, the director of animal health for Utah's Hogle Zoo. "We did it with a long handled forcep. We did it behind a barrier and we did it while we were feeding them their meat. We used full PPE and a meat stick, and luckily the animals really have a great relationship with the keepers and we did it very safely."
Most of the lion pride was diagnosed. Only one lioness refused a nasal swab, even when her keepers used a stick with meat on it to try to entice her. Dr. Crook described that one as "grumpy."
Now, the zoo is rolling out vaccines to some of its animals. The vaccine, specially created for animals by a division of Pfizer, is still in an experimental stage. So far, the zoo has vaccinated three snow leopards, five Amur leopards, two tigers and a gorilla. More apes will be vaccinated as doses become available. Dr. Crook said they share data with the vaccine maker and so far, no animal has had an adverse reaction.
Utah's Hogle Zoo is rolling out the vaccine to its big cats first, because they are highly susceptible to COVID-19 and some are endangered species. Snow leopards have been removed from public view because they are most at risk (some have died in other zoos from the virus).
"Once they’re fully vaccinated, we can’t wait to put them back on exhibit for our guests to be able to come and enjoy," Dr. Crook said.
Video of a vaccination shared with FOX 13 News shows keeper Jerica Tullís enticing Sasha, an Amur Tiger, with a stick with meat on it. Then keeper Melanie Kuse sticks Sasha in the hip with a long pole with a syringe at the end. Sasha looks back briefly, but otherwise is not distracted by the jab.
"I never needed to get out my dart gun," said Dr. Crook. "It was all done very positively and they were vaccinated. We vaccinated over 10 animals in just over an hour."
The Utah Department of Health & Human Services is also participating in research on COVID-19 and the impact on animals. Dr. Willy Lanier, the state's public health veterinarian, is involved in studies on the virus and has been collecting samples from zoo animals.
"We know the risk of the virus passing from animals to humans is really quite low. There’s a much greater chance it goes the other direction," he told FOX 13 News. "But there’s a lot of unanswered questions about the virus in animals. Which species are susceptible? How do they get it? How do they pass it to each other in an animal population and how might the virus change in an animal population?"
Those studies are ongoing, Dr. Lanier said, but it is hoped the research will provide more data about COVID's impact on animals and humans.
"The health of animals, and people and the environment are all inter-connected," he said. "So when animals have a disease issue, a potential for that to have other effects on other species, including humans. So we want to learn as much about that as possible."