San Diego Zoo Safari Park gorillas test positive for COVID-19
It’s the first known case of non-human apes becoming infected with the novel coronavirus
Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the novel coronavirus Monday, marking the first known case of the virus infecting any of the great apes — a group that includes gorillas, bonobos, chimps and orangutans.
Lisa Peterson, executive director of the Safari Park, said that more than one gorilla has tested positive but would not provide an exact number. During a Monday COVID-19 press briefing, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that two gorillas have tested positive for the virus and that a third is showing COVID-19 symptoms.
Safari Park staff are now carefully monitoring the entire troop with the assumption that all eight gorillas are or could soon be infected.
“They are doing well. They’ve got some minor symptoms, but they’re drinking and eating,” Peterson said. “We can tell the difference because our team works so closely with them.”
The park first suspected the gorillas could have been exposed to the virus when a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus more than a week ago. While the employee did not have COVID-19 symptoms, nearly half of the pandemic’s spread has come from asymptomatic infections, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That meant there was a chance the keeper could have infected the troop. Humans share about 98 percent of our DNA with gorillas.
“You could almost set your watch to it,” said Pascal Gagneux, a UC San Diego zoologist who studies primate evolution. “The closer you are on the evolutionary tree, the more likely you are to be susceptible to the same disease.”
According to the CDC, dogs, cats and minks, among other species, can also be infected by the novel coronavirus, often after close contact with people. But the agency notes that there’s no evidence that animals play a major role in transmitting the virus to humans.
Safari Park staff noticed that some of the gorillas seemed a bit slower-moving than usual and were sneezing and huffing a bit as they breathed. Last Wednesday, two of the gorillas began coughing. On Friday, gorilla fecal samples tested positive for the coronavirus, a result confirmed Monday with the help of a veterinary lab run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The park’s veterinary team is talking with physicians across the county about potential treatment options. But for the moment, the plan is to closely monitor the gorillas and make sure they are eating and drinking enough to recover on their own.
“They’re quite resilient because they have to be,” Peterson said. “In their natural setting, they need to keep moving and be very alert.”
It’s that natural environment that most concerns Bill Toone, a conservation scientist and former San Diego Zoo Global employee who has studied and cared for gorillas and other threatened species for decades. He’s concerned people may infect wild gorilla populations that are already dwindling.
“We still have very, very few animals and going through and losing any percentage of that population comes with enormous risk to the future of an entire species,” Toone said. “The responsibility really rests with human beings, because we know this virus is around, we know that we can carry it, we know the basics of how it’s transmitted.”
Both the zoo and Safari Park have been closed to the public since Dec. 6, but staff still come in to care for the 6,500 animal species at both facilities. The two parks routinely check employee temperatures and have staff fill out questionnaires about possible COVID-19 exposure each day.
Peterson says the Safari Park plans to get even stricter with its protocols. Staff who enter the gorilla enclosure will now wear a pair of disposable overalls over their work clothes. Keepers who already had to wear masks now must also don eye protection.
The Safari Park’s gorillas routinely get flu vaccines, and it’s possible that they will one day be vaccinated against COVID-19. But there’s no plan for that to happen any time soon.
“I would never want to speculate on when that might be possible,” Peterson said. “We need to focus on the human side of this first and really get it under control in our communities.”
6:03 p.m. Jan. 11, 2021: This story was updated with additional information, including comments from wildlife and conservation experts.
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