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Lions, tigers and bears immunized: Brookfield Zoo starts vaccinating animals against COVID-19

Cases in animals have been rare, but they do occur. “It’s very similar to what we see with people,” Brookfield’s chief veterinarian said.

Francine Lescher, a senior animal care specialist, holds T-Mo, a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth at Brookfield Zoo, while he receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice present of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society.
Francine Lescher, a senior animal care specialist, holds T-Mo, a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth at Brookfield Zoo, while he receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice present of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society.
Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Illinois has reached COVID-19 vaccination Phase 1-Z — for zoo animals.

Nine months after the first life-saving shots started going into human arms, veterinarians at Brookfield Zoo started administering coronavirus vaccine doses last weekend to gorillas, sloths and other animals considered to be at high risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.

The Zoetis vaccine recently approved by state and federal regulators activates an immune system response in animals much like the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines do for people. Four-legged recipients will need a second dose just like many humans have.

Cases in animals have been rare, but the crossover highlights the “interconnected” nature of COVID-19 on a global scale and the importance of taking preventive action, according to Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield.

“We see a huge connection between the health of humans and the health of animals, especially as people keep encroaching on habitats,” Adkesson said. “That human-animal interface is a huge concern for mutation and transmission. We want to make sure our humans and animals are healthy.”

Kyan, one of Brookfield Zoo’s servals, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society. He is assisted by Maggie Chardell, a lead animal care specialist. Due to the respectful and trusting relationships developed between the animals and the care staff, many of the zoo’s animals voluntarily participate in their own health care, including holding still while the vaccination is administered.
Kyan, one of Brookfield Zoo’s servals, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society. He is assisted by Maggie Chardell, a lead animal care specialist. Due to the respectful and trusting relationships developed between the animals and the care staff, many of the zoo’s animals voluntarily participate in their own health care, including holding still while the vaccination is administered.
Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Shots at Lincoln Park Zoo will begin over the next few weeks, a spokeswoman said. Neither zoo has had a diagnosed COVID-19 case among their animals.

But it’s been identified at other zoos across the nation, mostly among big cats, gorillas and small carnivores like otters and minks. They’re all thought to have been infected through interaction with zoo staff. Most showed signs of respiratory infections: coughing, nasal discharge and labored breathing.

“It’s very similar to what we see with people,” Adkesson said.

And at least in some cases, the animals are feeling vaccine side effects familiar to some people, too.

“We’ve not seen anything here, but some animals at other zoos seemed a little under the weather the next day, holding their upper arm in a way that makes people think it’s a little sore for them like it was for us. Very mild things,” Adkesson said.

First in line for the shot at Brookfield are species known to be susceptible to the virus: primates, big cats, bears, small carnivores and zoo “ambassadors” that make public appearances at outreach events. Hooved animals, bats, armadillos and other small mammals are also on the list of roughly 300 species slated for vaccination in the months ahead.

That doesn’t mean you’ll need to get your dog or cat a shot. COVID-19 cases have been even rarer among house pets.

“There’s no indication pets need to be vaccinated. We’re doing this to provide the highest level of care for our animals in the zoo,” Adkesson said.

Brookfield Zoo said it will likely reopen its Tropic World: Africa section and Australia House this fall once the western lowland gorillas and Rodrigues fruit bats are fully vaccinated.

Sandy, a binturong at Brookfield Zoo, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, and assisted by Maggie Chardell and Craig Stevens, lead animal care specialists.
Sandy, a binturong at Brookfield Zoo, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, and assisted by Maggie Chardell and Craig Stevens, lead animal care specialists.
Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo