Central Texas zoo looking at experimental vaccine following uptick in big cat COVID cases nationwide

The Cameron Park Zoo has yet to have a COVID-19 case among animals
Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 10:17 PM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Local zoo officials are reminding the public to stay safe--and possibly stay home--following a national uptick in big cat cases and deaths related to COVID-19.

Officials at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco told KWTX Tuesday they are looking into an experimental coronavirus vaccine for animals that some zoos have used on cats and primates.

“I’ve definitely been in contact with that company to try and figure out if that’s something we can do,” said Dr. James Kusmierczyk, Cameron Park Zoo Staff Veterinarian.

Kusmierczyk says they’ve been especially concerned about the zoos big cats ever since the first big cat COVID case was reported out of the Bronx Zoo in April of 2020.

“Very quickly we adopted some very strict protocols with our staff,” he said.

Staffers increased their use of PPE including masks and gloves, and they also stepped up the disinfection process in animal areas, Kusmierczyk said.

The zoo closed in mid-March, and when it reopened in May the pubic had limited access to big cat areas.

Some of the barriers remain, however, the zoo is limited in what it can make the public do, said Kusmierczyk, so there’s no longer mask requirements or warning signage.

“We encourage people to still wear masks, especially around areas where there are big cats and susceptible species,” he said. “If you’re feeling sick, I don’t think it would hurt to stay home.”

And now there’s new cause for alarm: last week eight big cats at the Saint Louis Zoo tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, and at a zoo in Nebraska three rare snow leopards infected with the virus died.

“Yes it’s worrisome, we look at that and we say ‘ok, is this something specific to snow leopards, is this something that we need to worry about more in our cats?’” said Kusmierczyk. “It seems that snow leopards in particular are more susceptible to SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID.”

The zoo doesn’t have any snow leopards, however, concerns still remain about the other big cat species, especially in light of the recent uptick in cases.

“It hasn’t been confirmed in all cases, but most of the cases we’re seeing now seem to be associated with the Delta variant, so for whatever reason the Delta variant seems to be able to infect cats more easily,” said Kusmierczyk.

From insects to elephants, Kusmierczy is in charge of all of the zoos approximately 2000 animals and, so far, they haven’t had a single case of COVID-19.

While they can’t do much more to protect the animals from the public at this time, he says he feels confident in their ongoing protocols.

“Obviously there’s been an uptick in big cat cases but, as of right now, the mortality rate is still pretty low, so it would be hard at this point to try to limit access to those areas,” said Kusmierczyk. “I think having the precautions we have in place, and maintaining that the entire time, gives me confidence that we’re prepared, so I feel with the precautions we have that we can decrease the likelihood of that happening here.”

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