How does the Karlsruhe Zoo want to protect its animals from Corona infection

Detecting unnoticed infection: When animals are placed under anesthesia, Marco Roller will usually take a blood sample to check for antibodies.

Photo: Timo Diebel / Karlsruhe Zoo

While Sophie chimpanzee roams into the wild in the outdoor enclosure, Penny, Karlsruhe’s oldest chimpanzee, sits right behind the glass panel at the Monkey House at Zoo City. He excitedly notices a girl waving to him from outside. Every now and then Benny knocks on the inside of the board to interact with visitors to the zoo on the other side. “If he could, he would definitely pass a stick through the joints to play with us,” says Timo Diebel, a spokesman for Karlsruhe Zoo. But due to the Corona pandemic, this is not possible.

So-called joints, that is, narrow open gaps between the glass panels of the outer area of ​​the monkey enclosure, were glued together, so that no sticks or other objects could be passed back and forth between the animals and visitors. “This is important in order to prevent the transmission of coronaviruses in the best possible way,” explains zoo veterinarian Marco Roller. Because it has now been confirmed: Animals can also be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and sometimes get sick too.

So hiding the joints is just one of the many measures the Karlsruhe Zoo has taken to protect the animals. In an interview with this editorial team, Roller asserts: “The issue of the coronavirus and the extent to which our zoo animals are specifically infected and ill with SARS-CoV-2 has been a concern since the beginning of the epidemic.” He is in close contact with zoo and wildlife clinicians around the world. Veterinarians share new findings at regular online conferences.

Heavy breathing, coughing and nasal secretions

“The first reports of infection of zoo animals came very early, namely in April 2020 from North America,” Roller recalls. There, in several zoos, first in New York and a little later in San Diego, the big cats were infected and showed symptoms too. These symptoms included signs of illness such as respiratory illness, symptoms of coughing, fatigue and diarrhea. Some animals also stopped eating.

In addition to positive cases in tigers and lions, positive cases in great apes, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees became known shortly thereafter, according to a summary from the European Association of Veterinarians and Wildlife (EAZWV). And not only in American zoos, but in the context of the epidemic also in European zoos, for example in Prague and Barcelona.

“We now have a large group of animals that can be infected with Sars-CoV-2. Only recently, hippos at Antwerp Zoo came back positive after showing symptoms such as nasal discharge and respiratory problems,” Roller reports.

male chimpanzee penny

Photo: Timo Diebel / Karlsruhe Zoo

Karlsruhe Zoo has so far escaped such cases, but the concern remains – especially with regard to the rare snow leopards, which are also kept at Karlsruhe Zoo. Because while most cycles of disease in affected animals have always been very mild, things are different with snow leopards.

“According to preliminary findings, they are very susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and unfortunately also develop serious illness – sometimes death,” Roller says.

What is particularly exciting is that snow leopards are already threatened with extinction.

The box is cleaned with a mask only

Because in all cases known to date, zoo animals have been infected by humans – often via caregivers – Karlsruhe Stadtgarten employees are subject to stricter hygiene rules during the pandemic than they really are. Roller emphasizes that “regular hand washing and sanitizing are of course important principles in general in animal husbandry, which we have always applied in the zoo.”

Wearing a mask has become even more important in the current pandemic. “For example, our fanciers wear a mask even when they are cleaning a container without an animal at the same time,” Deible confirms. Masks are also mandatory when preparing feed so that viruses are not transmitted to animals through the feed.

What if an animal subsequently shows symptoms of the disease despite these procedures? “Just in case this happens, we have developed a contingency plan very similar to what a positive person might do,” Roller explains. If an animal shows signs, a PCR sample is taken using a nasal and throat swab. If the test is positive, all close contact animals will also need to be tested. “We can then isolate the smaller animals in the dispensary in our veterinary department, and have quarantine areas for the larger animals,” Roller says.

It’s more difficult with big cats or hippos. “We can’t just put them in another barn, they will then be quarantined in the normal animal house, which we will then have to ban to visitors.”

Regular animal testing, such as that performed in schools or daycares, is “simply useless” for zoo animals, Roller learned from experience. In order to take a swab from the nose and throat of a large cat, the animal must be placed under anesthesia in most cases. “We also have large cats, such as the lioness Sappho, who are so well trained that they can potentially be tested without anesthesia. However, an animal often reacts differently when it is sick than when it is healthy,” notes Roller. For this reason, animals are only tested if there is reasonable doubt.

Pets can also be infected

However, Covid-19 in animals is not just a problem in zoos: According to a study by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover (TiHo), about four percent of domestic cats in Europe were infected with the coronavirus in the spring and summer of 2020. Researchers took a total of 2,160 samples Blood from cats in Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain that they tested for antibodies.

According to the study, most cats in which antibodies against the emerging corona virus can be found came from homes where at least one person has been infected with the Corona virus. “So it is also assumed here that the cats were infected only with humans,” Roller says.

The good news: Almost all velvet paws showed only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. According to the study, there were no indications that the owners might be infected by pets. According to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, which conducts research in animal health, pets do not play an epidemiological role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 according to the current state of knowledge.

However, the concern that the virus could spread between certain types of wild animals, mutate and later return to humans in a more dangerous form, is completely unfounded in the view of Marco Roller: “It has already been observed, for example, That white-tailed deer can spread fairly quickly in North America,” he says. “Also, one should not forget where this virus, which makes our lives so difficult at the moment, probably came from – from the animal world.”

And no one should forget why this happened in the first place: “Wild animal markets in Southeast Asia are a major source of danger. In particular, because often there are no hygiene regulations observed there,” warns Roller.

Farming factories such as mink farms, where there have been reports of mutations in animals and their transmission to humans, predetermined outbreaks of various diseases. “If we continue to penetrate nature, there is always a risk of zoonoses, that is, infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans,” Diebel stresses. “If we don’t change something in this area, we are not protected from the fact that such a pandemic will come our way again in a few years,” Roller adds.

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