Rare Snow Leopard at a South Dakota Zoo Likely Died of Covid-19

Rare Snow Leopard at a South Dakota Zoo Likely Died of Covid-19
Snow leopards seen at the Melbourne Zoo on June 01, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Daniel Pockett, Getty Images)

A big cat at the Great Plains Zoo in South Dakota may have been killed by covid-19, zoo officials reported over the weekend. The cat, a female snow leopard named Baya, died last Thursday after testing positive for the virus and experiencing severe respiratory symptoms. Several other cats at the zoo have been similarly sick as well, though none as seriously as Baya. Officials will conduct an examination of Baya’s body to determine her cause of death.

On Friday, the zoo reported Baya’s death, along with the surrounding outbreak of covid-19 among its cats. On October 3, Baya had come down with a cough, followed by a loss of appetite and lethargy — symptoms that were being seen in other cats within the zoo’s feline complex. By October 6, an Amur (Siberian) tiger named Keesa had tested positive for the coronavirus. A day later, Baya began experiencing a “rapid decline in respiratory function.” Despite 24-hour care and consultation from outside experts, Baya died Thursday evening.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Baya. Our animal care and veterinary staffs fought arduously and did their best to help give Baya a fighting chance,” said Becky Dewitz, CEO of the Great Plains Zoo, in a statement.

We’ve known since last year that both domestic and wild cats can be vulnerable to covid-19. Research has indicated that humans and members of the weasel family have the most to fear from the virus, while cats and dogs tend to develop milder symptoms. But there have been suspected covid-19 deaths among zoo cats.

In January, a 17-year-old tigress at a Swedish zoo was euthanised after experiencing severe respiratory illness attributed to covid-19 (at the old age of 17, her chances of recovery were deemed low). This February, the deaths of two tiger cubs at Pakistani zoo were thought likely to be due to covid-19. And in June, two lions at India’s Valandur zoo died after contracting covid-19, though one death may have been caused by a concurrent distemper infection.

Dewitz told SDPR Radio Friday that all five other big cats at the zoo are currently experiencing covid-19 symptoms and are being kept from public display to recuperate. Keesa is the only cat to have tested positive for the virus so far, though as of Friday, Baya’s test results were still pending. As is standard practice, officials will perform an autopsy of her body to confirm what killed her. It isn’t known whether a zoo worker or visitor may have infected her. Only one zoo worker had recently tested positive, according to the zoo, while workers are mandated to wear masks, suits, and gloves when around animals who could contract covid-19 and to stay home when sick.

There is an available veterinary vaccine for covid-19, developed by the drug company Zoetis. The vaccine has been authorised for emergency use by federal and state officials on a case-by-case basis. Several zoos and animal sanctuaries have been given doses by the company, and some have started a vaccination campaign of their animals. The Great Plains Zoo plans to vaccinate their animals once they get their own doses. At this point, though, the danger of covid-19 to household pets is still thought to be very low.

While no longer officially endangered, snow leopards in the wild are considered a vulnerable species by conservation experts, meaning they remain at high risk for extinction. It was hoped that Baya, only 2.5 years old, would be part of a breeding program, after having been transferred from the Akron Zoo in Ohio. Her paired mate, Strut, has also developed symptoms but is in stable condition, according to the zoo.