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Poke the bear: Austin Zoo announces plans to vaccinate resident animals against COVID

Various animals at the Austin Zoo will be COVID vaccinated. (Austin Zoo/Facebook)

Lions and tigers and bears are getting vaccinated, oh my! Following suit with other zoos across the state and country, Austin Zoo said it will begin vaccinating its animals against COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

An allotment of vaccines specially formulated for big cats and bears from Zoeti, an American animal health company, will be provided to zoos that want to participate free of charge, including Austin Zoo. The zoo expects the doses to arrive in a few weeks.

Austin Zoo Executive Director Patti Clark on Tuesday said they did not yet know how many doses they would receive or which animals they will go toward, though it is likely they will prioritize primates, those in close proximity with humans and larger animals, as they are most at risk.

Headquartered in Michigan, Zoeti said it began working on a vaccine formulated for furry friends when the first dog was infected with the virus in Hong Kong last year. The vaccines Zoeti is providing are experimental but have been authorized for experimental use on a case-by-case basis by the United States Department of Agriculture.

"They are making available a certain number of doses to zoos at no cost," Clark said. "It's kind of like the equivalent of a clinical trial, without a clinical trial."

Wait, animals can catch COVID? Yes, but don't rush out to vaccinate Fido just yet. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association said it doesn't recommend vaccinating house pets due to their mild symptoms and lack of evidence that your pet will pass the virus on. Plus, Zoeti just doesn't have the inventory to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of companions.

When they do vaccinate them, rest assured no humans will be harmed. Big animals will be vaccinated with a partition between them and the human, according to Clark.

"We train the animals so that they will tolerate (vaccination)," Clark said.

Austin Zoo is not the first to announce such vaccines for their animals—San Antonio Zoo, Dallas Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo all have plans to poke their residents, along with dozens of zoos across the United States.

Animal vaccine deployment began back in January after there were confirmed cases of COVID in the gorillas at the San Diego Zoo. So far, no cases of the virus have been detected at Austin Zoo, though they did have a scare that came back negative.

In the meantime, Austin Zoo is asking visitors to comply with local guidance by wearing a mask while indoors and social distancing at all times.


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