COVID-19-infected lions and tigers at the National Zoo in Washington won't eat their meat so zookeepers are adding foods to their diets that sound like they're for a sick human – baby food and chicken broth.
In the week since the zoo said six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Amur tigers tested positive for the coronavirus, the big cats have been showing some signs of improvement. But a few of the animals are still experiencing coughs, fatigue and a loss of appetite.
Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said on Friday that caretakers noticed some of the great cats weren't eating or drinking. "We saw a real decrease in appetite interest so this week they've done more to stimulate their appetite."
Caretakers added baby food, chicken broth, milk and cheese from goats, and elk meat to the big cats' diets. Animal experts said that since some of the new foods have a strong scent, they're hoping that stimulates the big cats' senses.
Caretakers at the zoo first noticed symptoms in some of the animals Sept. 11 and 12.
Fecal samples were taken, and the big cats tested "presumptive positive" for the coronavirus. They're still awaiting final test results, but zoo officials said they're certain the animals are infected and are treating them as such.
Experts at the zoo have said the coronavirus was probably transmitted to the big cats from a human who may have been asymptomatic.
'Varying degrees of symptoms'
The animals are being closely monitored. "Everybody has improved," Baker-Masson said, "but each animal has varying degrees of symptoms."
Three tigers – a female Sumatran tiger named Damai, a male Amur tiger named Metis and a female Amur tiger named Nikita – are "eating and alert," although Nikita and Damai still have "very mild" coughs, officials said in a statement.
Two lionesses, Amahle and Naba, along with a male lion named Luke, have also shown improvements, zoo official said.
But officials said they're concerned about three other lions that have "greater and more pronounced" symptoms than the other big cats, according to Baker-Masson.
Three lions – a 16-year-old female named Shera and two, 7-year-old males named Shaka and Jumbe – were having "abnormal respiration," a lack of appetite and were dehydrated. Last weekend, they were anesthetized for "fluid therapy" and given "long-acting antibiotics and other supportive medications," officials said. Blood was also collected for analysis.
Shaka and Jumbe remain lethargic and with coughs and nasal discharge but "are improving," officials said. Shera is stable but "still of concern," they said. Her bloodwork showed that she has renal failure so she had more fluid therapies.
The big cats, which live in groups with their specific species, are not being separated at this time, officials said. They have access to their indoor and outdoor habitats.
Infections at other US facilities
No other animals at the National Zoo have shown symptoms of the coronavirus. But other zoos around the country have had infected animals, including the Zoo Atlanta and the San Diego Zoo, where some gorillas tested positive. Two tigers at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk tested positive this spring.
Dozens of zoos and animal sanctuaries around the United States have been given doses of a coronavirus vaccine that's made for animals from Zoetis, a company that spun off from Pfizer.
The National Zoo said it has plans to give the Zoetis vaccine to some of its animals in the coming months. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore said it also plans to give that same vaccine to its otters, chimps and lions – even though no animals at its facility have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Officials at the National Zoo said they did a "thorough investigation" of all staff who were close to the sickened lions and tigers but found no evidence to pinpoint the source of the infection. The zoo has protocols in place requiring staff to use personal protective equipment, and all staff and animal caretakers are required to wear masks indoors and in all public and nonpublic areas.