Birmingham Zoo staff take precautions to keep animals, humans safe during COVID-19

Standard PPE during a routine exam on a DeBrazza's monkey, Huey
Standard PPE during a routine exam on a DeBrazza's monkey, Huey(Birmingham Zoo)
Published: Apr. 15, 2020 at 11:57 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Birmingham Zoo staff are taking extra precautions, wearing gloves and masks when caring for some animals and limiting contact with others to keep both humans and animals safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The zoo has regular protocols in place to protect both staff and animals, but have added in more hand washing, masks and gloves as safety measures.

In April, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for the coronavirus, the only known case of an animal testing positive for the virus.

The news quickly spread through the zoo community, which is relatively small, Dr. Stephanie McCain, the director of animal health at the Birmingham Zoo, said.

“As soon as it came out, they let us know that we’d be hearing directly from the vet managing that case. The next morning he shared info on what they saw clinically and how it played out,” McCain said.

Only one tiger at the Bronx Zoo was tested because it was already anesthetized for its examination after showing signs of illness, though six other large cats were also sick.

McCain said to date, there have been no transmissions of the coronavirus from an animal to a person.

Zoo staff are already extra cautious when working with primates because primates and humans have a similar genetic code, which can lead to diseases being transmitted between species.

“The apes are more likely because they are more related to us, where as something like a lemur would be presumably less susceptible,” McCain said.

The zoo has around 20 primates, including orangutans, gibbons, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys.

Because primates have a higher risk of catching a disease from a human, the zoo staff are wearing gloves, masks and are social distancing from them right now, which they typically do during flu season as well.

“Every day of the year we perform visual checks on the animals twice a day to make sure they’re healthy,” McCain said.

Although the zoo is closed to the public and some staff are working from home, around 40 to 60 staff are still coming to the zoo each day to care for the animals. The full-time number of zoo staff is usually around 150 people, with up to 250 staff members working during the seasonal period of March through August.

McCain said in some cases, this time has given staff more flexibility to work with the animals and do more training sessions. Some animals have been able to have a “field trip” out of their enclosures to visit the big lawn in the middle of the zoo. [Watch the goats go on a walk through the zoo here.]

The zoo is extending memberships for the time period the zoo remains closed to the public due to the coronavirus. Memberships that expired during the closure will be automatically extended the number of days the zoo was closed, and new memberships or renewals will begin the day the zoo re-opens.

The Birmingham Zoo, a non-profit organization, has also established an emergency animal fund because while it’s closed, it is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

The Zoo has established an Emergency Animal Fund to aid with the $1,000 a day it costs to feed over 700 animal residents, including endangered species. In addition to essential nutrition, it costs the Zoo an average of $30,000 per day to operate and provide vital animal care.

Copyright 2020 WBRC. All rights reserved.