Are Humans the Most Dangerous Animal at the Zoo Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Shannon Blum
July 08, 2020 - 9:55 am

Photo credit Titus and Brutus, two 4-year-old African lions arrived at Brookfield Zoo on March 17. (Jim Schulz/Chicago Zoological Society)

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Zoos are starting to reopen nationwide, as coronavirus restrictions ease, which means people will being returning to see all the animals.

But the question is, is it safe? Not for guests to return to zoos, but for animals to be around people as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Earlier this year, it was reported that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for COVID-19, in what was believed to be the first known infection in an animal in the U.S. or a tiger anywhere, according federal officials and the zoo.

The 4-year-old Malayan tiger, as well as six other tigers and lions that had also fallen ill, were all believed to have been infected by a zoo employee who wasn't yet showing symptoms, the zoo said. The cats developed dry coughs, and some exhibited some wheezing and loss of appetite, Dr. Paul Calle, the zoo's chief veterinarian, told the Associated Press.

At that time, the USDA was not recommending routine coronavirus testing of animals, in zoos or elsewhere, or of zoo employees. But, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that out of an abundance of caution, people with COVID-19 should limit contact with animals.

So what are zoos doing to keep animals safe? Is there a concern about COVID-19 transmission between humans and animals?

Brookfield Zoo, located in Brookfield, Illinois, about 13 miles west of Chicago reopened to members on Wednesday, July 1 and will reopen to the general public on Wednesday, July 8 - though timed reservations are required to limit guest capacity and ensure safe, social distancing.

But Leah Rippe, Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo said there is "no concern" about transmission from humans to animals, and "we are not doing any COVID-19 testing that I am aware of."

Brookfield Zoo
Photo credit Shannon Blum

She said the zoo is following the Phase 4 guidelines recommended by the State of Illinois, which includes a number of safety protocols for guests and employees.

"We are checking the temperatures of all staff coming in. We have enhanced cleaning schedules. I know if you [employees] are interacting with guests, with food, gloves have to be worn. So we are taking those additional safety precautions just to keep everyone safe," Rippe said.

RELATED: Know Before You Go: A Guide To Returning To Brookfield Zoo Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Brookfield Zoo
Photo credit Shannon Blum

In addition to employees, all guests ages 2 and over must wear face coverings when entering the zoo. Once inside, the zoo said face coverings should be worn if you are not able to maintain a social distance of at least six feet from staff and other guests who are not members of the same family. This includes when making transactions at food, beverage, and merchandise kiosks and while inside bathrooms.

Brookfield Zoo
Photo credit WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

According to the zoo, high touch areas and restrooms will be sanitized with hospital-grade cleaners and conducted on an increased cleaning schedule. Hand sanitizing stations will also be located throughout the park.

"We have made sure that we allocate social distance signs all throughout the park. You will notice that there are not only visual signage, but visual markings on our pavements. During this Phase 4 reopening, none of our indoor buildings are able to be open to the public, so all the of the animals will be viewed in their outdoor habitats," Rippe said. "The restaurants and gift shops are also closed, but you can purchase those at the kiosks. We are also a cashless zoo, so you will need to bring your cards for payment."