11 African lions at the Denver Zoo test positive for COVID-19

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DENVER — Denver Zoo officials said Monday that 11 African lions have tested positive for COVID-19.

Officials said the lions were between 1 and 9 years old.

The animals were tested through nasal swab samples after staff noticed they were coughing, sneezing, and appeared to be lethargic.

Zoo officials said their symptoms are relatively mild at this point, but staff will continue to monitor and treat the animals. It is not clear how they contracted the virus.

“It could be someone without symptoms, and we never knew,” said Brian Okun, the zoo’s senior vice president of life sciences. “It’s a bit mysterious how they got it.”

This outbreak comes two weeks after the zoo announced that tests on Amur tigers had tested positive for the virus. Okun said that the lions did not catch the virus from the tigers because the animals do not share any of the same spaces and each has different teams that care for them. It has been observed that tigers exhibit symptoms similar to those of lions.

“There have been a number of big cats infected with COVID-19 in zoos across the country, including our tigers, Yuri and Nikita,” Okuni said. “Fortunately, the vast majority have fully recovered, and the positive side is that there is a well-established knowledge base that we can draw on to help treat our animals. We have reached out to other zoos that have recently managed COVID cases in their large cats to inform the care we provide.”

Like tigers, lions have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, but the zoo plans to vaccinate them and other big cat species once more doses of vaccine are available for the animals.

“We’re just waiting for more supplies to become available because we know that big cats like this are susceptible to it,” Oconi said. “I think in the next two or three months is what they expect more will be available.”

The zoo said it has several precautions in place, including the use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, staff self-examination, and health management. In 2020, it has also installed protective barriers around the tiger habitat to ensure a safe distance between guests and the animals.

Denver 7 reporter Patrick Perez contributed to this report.


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