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The Philadelphia Zoo has extended pandemic protection protocols to all carnivores after a tiger tested positive for the coronavirus in New York City.

Philly’s big cats were already under those protections, according to Dr. Keith Hinshaw, who’s worked at the zoo in Fairmount Park for 37 years. They first enacted measures to protect animals believed to be most vulnerable about a month ago, he said.

“We just said, ‘Look, we need to do some social distancing in the zoo between the keepers and those animals,’” Hinshaw told Billy Penn.

Initially, those health precautions covered great apes and other kinds of primates, “because they are so close to humans in physiology,” Hinshaw said, and bats, the animal in which the virus is thought to have originated.

About two weeks later, research showed cats and ferrets were susceptible.

So when a tiger named Nadia was diagnosed with COVID-19, along with six other big cats presumably sickened by the virus at the Bronx Zoo, essential staff at the Philly Zoo were already familiar with the protocols — and decided to extend them to cover all carnivores.

“Obviously with the tiger story, that basically confirmed that in that particular situation at that zoo those cats could actually contract that virus,” Hinshaw said. “So we felt good that at least we had started ahead of time in terms of some of those protections with those animals.”

The 40-acre zoo has been closed since Mar. 17, the day Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all non-essential businesses must close to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Essential employees, including animal care staff, the nutrition department, maintenance and facilities, public safety staff and horticulture workers are still reporting to work in various capacities.

Under the new protocol, zookeepers wear masks whenever they’re near any of the animals or animals’ food. Keepers also can’t spend as much time as they normally would with the animals under their care.

No testing of Philly animals yet

Nadia, the 4-year-old Malayan tiger diagnosed with COVID-19 at the Bronx Zoo, is thought to be the first of her species to test positive for the coronavirus.

Nadia and six other big cats were infected by the same asymptomatic zoo keeper who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny said he was surprised by the diagnosis. Though early studies and papers showed cats could be susceptible to the virus, Philly Zoo doctor Hinshaw said he’s still pretty surprised that a tiger would be the first animal in the U.S. diagnosed.

“In New York City, with millions of people and probably millions of house cats, you would have thought if any cat was diagnosed with it, it would’ve been a house cat,” Hinshaw said.

The zoo extended additional COVID-19 protocols to carnivores because research and testing done on the SARS and MERS viruses, and early work done with the COVID-19 coronavirus, showed carnivorous animals were more susceptible to the viruses.

The Philadelphia Zoo has not yet tested any animals for coronavirus, per Hinshaw, who said they would likely wait until symptoms were shown. That’s largely because of how much work goes into giving an animal a nasal swab.

“They’re not gonna put up with that,” Hinshaw said, adding the animals would likely have to be put under general anesthesia to do it effectively.

If the zoo does have to test symptomatic animals in the future, that testing would be done through the Philadelphia Health Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, he said.

For now, Hinshaw said the zoo’s animals miss their human guests.

“If I walk down a path and they’re looking for people and I’m the only one, they’re, I think, a little disappointed,” Hinshaw said. “It’ll be great for our humans and our zoo animals when things go back to normal.”

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...