Magnetic Hill Zoo animals get vaccinated against COVID-19

·3 min read
Gabrielle Jacob, the zoo's veterinary technician, helped vaccinate its tiger against COVID-19.  (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)
Gabrielle Jacob, the zoo's veterinary technician, helped vaccinate its tiger against COVID-19. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)

From lions to caribou, some high-risk animals at the Magnetic Hill Zoo are getting vaccinated to protect them against COVID-19.

Director Jill Marvin said that after immunization became available for animals, staff conducted a risk assessment to see who could benefit from the shot.

"Throughout COVID we were not only concerned for our staff and our visitors, we were also concerned for our animals," she said.

"We feel that this is just one more layer of protection."

The Moncton zoo is using a vaccine developed by Zoetis, an American pharmaceutical company. It was first administered to animals in the U.S. and became available in Canada after the approval of import permits earlier this year.

WATCH | How do you give a tiger a COVID vaccine?

Rare cases at zoos

Although rare, Marvin said there have been cases around the world where zoo animals have become ill and died from COVID-19.

"You can't always tell how," she said. "Sometimes it has been discovered that it's asymptomatic keepers."

During the pandemic, staff took extra precautions to protect the animals and prevent possible transmission to an animal.

The zoo's animal care and welfare team conducted a risk assessment to determine who would get the shots. It considered the individual animals, proximity to visitors and any risk involved in administering the vaccine.

Those that are getting immunized are the cougars, lions, tigers, marmosets, gibbons and caribou. Each vaccinated animal receives two doses, three weeks apart.

Vaccine originally for mink

Carl Dingee, the primary veterinarian working with the zoo, said Zoetis initially delivered the shot to be used for mink. The species was the source of major coronavirus outbreaks on farms where they are bred for fur, including some in Canada

The pharmaceutical company later made the shot available to zoos that were interested, and the Magnetic Hill Zoo applied. It received a shipment of 20 total doses.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Dingee said research has shown great apes and big cats to be most at risk.

"The lions and the tigers, those are where most of the fatalities from COVID have occurred. So those were certainly high on our list for doing," he said. "And then the primates because they're closer to us."

Animals trained to be comfortable

Zookeepers have been training the animals to get them comfortable for the injection and most are willing to receive it voluntarily with a reward.

The two lions were the animals that proved a bit more challenging. They needed to be vaccinated using an air dart.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Gabrielle Jacob, the zoo's veterinary technician, helped administer a second dose Wednesday to a tiger.

"As soon as there's some food involved, that's where his mind goes. He's just worried about getting the food and we're able to manipulate the tail," she said.

As the tiger chowed down on raw meat, he didn't flinch after getting the poke in his tail. He moved it under the fence, allowing Jacobs to safely administer the vaccine from behind the enclosure.

For the cougars, the motivation is touch and affection.

"We have back scratchers that we'll use to safely give them all kinds of love and pets," Jacob said.

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