The COVID-19 pandemic has forced zoos to follow a number of safety protocols so visitors and the animals are safe.
Among those on the front line has been Dr. Lana Fox, a 2008 McFarland High School graduate who studied veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
She works as a clinical veterinarian at the Toledo Zoo where she has seen her share of challenges this year when it comes to animal care. The zoo reopened mid-June after a three-month shutdown. It has limited visitor capacity to 50%.
Toledo Zoo has over 12,000 different animals that need care including frogs, sharks, elephants and tigers.
To make up for loss of income from the reduction in visitors, Fox said costly preventative health and elective procedures have had to been put on hold.
“This is detrimental because exotic animals, in particular, hide illness very well, so we rely on these exams to ensure the health of our collection,” she said.
Fox added that the zoo has implemented some measures to maximize the safety of visitors.
“All staff is required to wear masks. Visitors are required to wear masks when indoors and outdoors when social distancing is not possible. A one-way path was made around the zoo with hand washing stations placed throughout,” she said. “The zoo is closed one day per week for deep cleaning, and throughout the week there is increased sanitation of tables and high contact areas. Limited food stands and gift shops are open, with extra precautions taken at these locations.”
Officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said much still needs to be learned about the virus, but evidence has shown it can be spread from people to animals in some situations.
Fox said lions and tigers in New York zoos have tested positive for COVID-19 and their symptoms have included lack of appetite, coughing and gastrointestinal disorders. Research has shown small carnivores and primates may also be susceptible to the virus.
“A few domestic dogs have tested positive, but all were asymptomatic. Domestic cats, on the other hand, have tested positive and showed mild respiratory and digestive signs, but recovered uneventfully,” Fox said. “At this time, due to the very low number of documented cases and no reported mortality events, it is not suspected that domestic cats and dogs play much of a role in the current pandemic.”
Toledo Zoo has taken measures to reduce the animals’ exposure to the virus by placing barriers between felines and primates on exhibit to reduce the chances of animal to human contact.
“For these animals, increased personal protective equipment has been implemented, such as face shields when in close proximity,” Fox said. “Staff has been reorganized to try to minimize keepers traveling between multiple areas of the zoo. A lot of animal training has been postponed as well, to minimize close contact with the animals.”
Yet, aside from zoos, Fox said the bigger concern involves animals who live in overcrowded, dirty and stressed conditions where they have poor nutrition.
“These conditions decrease an animal’s ability to fight off disease and promote disease transmission. For example, wildlife markets in China and Southeast Asia are the epitome of this,” she said. “Until places like this fail to exist, animal to human transmission of novel diseases will continue to occur.”
Fox said she is fortunate to work with a very talented staff at the Toledo Zoo, who assist with procedures, such as training animals to tolerate blood collections, injections and ultrasounds while they are awake.
“The more we can do with animals without them being anesthetized, the safer and less stressful it is for the animals,” Fox said.
Looking back on her high school days when the McFarland girls’ soccer team advanced to the state tournament in 2007-08, Fox said the experience of being part of that team helped fulfill her dream of becoming a veterinarian.
“Whether we were laughing or crying, we knew everything would be okay because of the amazing team and support system we had created,” she said. “Translating that into veterinary medicine, the vet team at Toledo Zoo has so much compassion and love for the animals, and we work together tirelessly to ensure the animals get the best care possible.”