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Snow Leopard At San Diego Zoo Tests Positive For Virus Causing COVID-19

A male snow leopard rests its front paws upon a rock, tail high in the air, a...

Credit: San Diego Zoo

Above: A male snow leopard rests its front paws upon a rock, tail high in the air, and looks forward in this undated image.

A male snow leopard at the San Diego Zoo has preliminarily tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it was announced Friday.

On Thursday, wildlife care specialists noticed the snow leopard had a cough and nasal discharge. Fecal samples collected from the snow leopard and tested at the zoo confirmed the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

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The results were sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System for further testing, and those results also were positive. All positive tests for the virus are required to be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratories, where the results are still pending.

The male snow leopard appears to be doing well, according to a statement from the zoo. The leopard is showing no additional symptoms other than the cough and runny nose. He shares his habitat with a female snow leopard and two Amur leopards.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance veterinarians assume those three animals have also been exposed, and they are being quarantined in their habitat. Veterinarians are monitoring them closely, and will treat symptoms as they may arise. Because the Amur leopards and snow leopard are being quarantined, their habitat will be closed to zoo visitors until further notice.

"While we await the results of tests to determine if the snow leopard is positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, we can assure you the snow leopard and the Amur leopards who share his habitat are receiving excellent care," said Dwight Scott, executive director of the San Diego Zoo. "Our veterinary teams and wildlife care specialists at both the Zoo and Safari Park are highly skilled, dedicated professionals who work tirelessly to ensure the well-being of the wildlife in our care."

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It is not yet known how the male snow leopard acquired the infection. The zoo previously had biosecurity protocols in place which were heightened around wildlife at the onset of the pandemic last year. The biosecurity practices include the use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfection protocols, quarantine procedures for new arrivals and preventive medicine practices, such as vaccination. All employees are provided N95 face masks, and employees who are not vaccinated are required to wear masks and practice health and safety protocols at all times.

In January, the gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park contracted SARS-CoV-2 from an asymptomatic wildlife care specialist. The troop has fully recovered. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is sharing information on what is being learned from documentation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the gorillas — and also what is being learned from the snow leopard at the San Diego Zoo — among global conservation organizations and wildlife care professionals at more than 200 zoos worldwide.

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Scott added that guests visiting the San Diego Zoo should feel confident in knowing they are not at risk from the wildlife they may encounter during their visit. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance follows county and state health and safety guidelines, and asks guests who are not fully vaccinated to wear a mask and practice social distancing during their visit.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance recently received a donation of recombinant purified spike protein vaccine, intended for use in protecting animals against SARS-CoV-2. The vaccine doses were donated by Zoetis, an animal health company, and are strictly intended for non-human use. The veterinary teams and wildlife care specialists at both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are in the process of administering the vaccine doses as quickly as can responsibly be done, as a preventative measure for wildlife most at risk of contracting the virus — including felids like leopards, lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, mountain lions and others. The male snow leopard had not yet been vaccinated.

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