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Curiously, said Whiteside, the disease initially targeted several species of zoo big cats, but with the discovery earlier this week of COVID-19 in up to eight western lowland gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, concerns have arisen over the Calgary Zoo’s gorilla troop and other primates.
That’s especially true with 12-year-old gorilla Yewande, whose pregnancy was detected last fall and is expected to give birth in April or May, he said.
“The gorillas are high up in susceptibility because they share 98.5 per cent of our DNA,” said Whiteside.
“We know pregnancy can have an influence on their immune system, so we make sure precautions are in place, such as limiting contact with keepers.”
Animal food is also handled with heightened care, he said, along with monitoring for any visible symptoms such as respiratory distress.
So far, no signs of the illness have been seen in any of the zoo’s animals but if they are, likely affected animals would undergo fecal testing, said Whiteside.
“A lot of them won’t submit voluntarily to nasal or throat swabs,” he said, adding their human keepers, as with the general population, aren’t tested unless they’re showing symptoms.
There’s an irony in that the virus’s origins were animal-to-human transmission, with the risk now being reversed, said Whiteside.
It’s believed infections at zoos were spread by asymptomatic keepers, with patrons considered a lower risk because they’re generally more physically distanced from the animals, he said.
“But there’s still so much that’s unknown” about COVID-19 and animals, said Whiteside.
Other animals known to be highly vulnerable, he said, are mammals such as otters, ferrets and minks, an animal that suffered from major outbreaks at farms in B.C. and elsewhere around the world.