SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — In early October, it was announced that a tiger at the Great Plains Zoo (GPZ) in Sioux Falls had tested positive for COVID-19. Prior to this, zoo officials had also that some of the cats were exhibiting symptoms of respiratory illness. At that time, two other tigers as well as a pair of Snow Leopards were also exhibiting signs of the disease.
Just one day later, it was announced that one of those leopards, Baya, had died.
Today, GPZ veterinarian Louden Wright gave an update on the situation, telling KELOLAND News that as of now they are in the midst of a presumed COVID-19 outbreak in their large cat facility.
“We haven’t confirmed the COVID status of most of the cats yet,” said Wright. “We’ve got tests that are out and pending on them, but they’re all showing similar clinical signs and we do have one confirmed positive.”
Wright also gave an update on the conditions of the affected cats. “The two female tigers who were kind of the first two to show signs seem to be recovering pretty well. They’re both looking pretty darn good,” he said. “The two remaining leopards and our other male tiger are still showing clinical signs, but none of them seem to be severely affected at this point.”
Beyond the large cat facility, Wright said the zoo has not had any other animals showing signs of infection.
GPZ President and CEO Becky DeWitz praised the response by the zoo’s veterinary staff. “As soon as we did have the indication that their health was being affected by some type of respiratory disease, Louden and his team did implement measures immediately.”
DeWitz said that some of these measures include broad-spectrum antibiotics and steroids, as well as oxygen.
Wright elaborated on some of these measures. “There is a vaccine that is just starting to roll out,” he said. “We’re working on getting some of that, but it’s still in the early stages of its rollout, so it’s not widely available yet.”
Beyond that, he went on to outline some of the direct treatments. “A lot of our treatment medically goes into supportive care — the goal of [antibiotics] is if you know you have a cat that already has compromised lung function, you want to prevent them from getting a secondary infection — a bacterial infection — on top of that viral one.”
Wright also lists anti-nausea medication to keep them eating and drinking as important tools and steroids to keep the inflammation of the cats’ lungs down.
Wright said that all the zookeepers who work with the big cats are vaccinated, and that appropriate PPE, including masks, gloves and booties are all worn while in the facility. Since the outbreak has begun, the masks have been stepped up to N-95 masks rather than basic surgical masks.
Testing for big cats is not as simple as it is for humans, for obvious reasons. Wright says that the zoo is using PCR tests, which are sent to the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. He says the main mode of testing is actually done via fecal testing, AKA testing cat poop, which allows for the samples to be taken without fully anesthetizing the animal.
DeWitz spoke next to the impact behind the loss of Baya the Snow Leopard. She points out that due to conservation work over the course of years, these leopards have been moved from the IUCN red list to a status of threatened, which is an improvement. “Nonetheless, they are an endangered species, so speaking to the species itself, it’s hard.”
DeWitz says they have felt a large measure of support from the community since the death of Baya. “We’ve received an outpouring of support helping us through this difficult time. We even had some young children stop on Saturday and write some cards that they drew and just lend their support to the animal care team specifically. That matters so much, and we have those cards on display for all of our staff to see.”