NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – After recovering from a COVID-19 diagnosis, the three tigers at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk are back on display for everyone to see. Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Tara Reilly credits zoo animal care staff members for being observant and acting quickly.
“Because of that relationship that was built between the keepers and the tigers, they know immediately if anything is even a little bit off,” Reilly said.
Oceola and Stubbley are twin tigers that were born at the zoo. Staff members have cared for them since that day, and Dr. Reilly says those staff members are very in tune with the animals.
It was near the beginning of April when the animal care staff at the zoo noticed something was off with the pair. The staff told Dr. Reilly the tigers’ usual friendly chuffing sound wasn’t quite right. So, Dr. Reilly stepped in to evaluate them.
“We know that COVID can affect animals. We know from other zoological institutions that have had tigers and other big cat species who have developed COVID symptoms and tested positive for COVID in other parts of the country, we knew that that was a possibility. We re-checked them the next day, and vocalizations were even a little less subtle, just a little more noticeable, where their sounds they were making just sounded a little off tune, just a little bit different. Much like a human who has a cold, their voice will get a little more hoarse sounding. [The tigers] weren’t even coughing at this point. They weren’t even sneezing, and we were like, you know, just to be safe, let’s test them and make sure [COVID-19] is not it, because we wanted to provide the best care,” Reilly said.
In exclusive videos and pictures given to WAVY.com from the Virginia Zoo, we can see the staff swabbing the tigers for COVID while giving them milk from a bottle, which Dr. Reilly said the tigers love. She said the swabs didn’t have to go far into the tigers’ noses.
“To them it was a light tickle, and they saw it coming the whole time and they were completely fine with it.”
At no point in the testing were the tigers sedated.
“We are, to our knowledge, the very first zoo that has been able to collect awake nasal swabs in our tigers in order to help diagnose COVID-19,” Reilly said.
The swabs were sent for testing, and while the zoo staff waited for the preliminary results, Dr. Reilly says the two tigers did start coughing. However, she says by that point they were already treating the tigers as if they had COVID.
They kept them behind the scenes to rest and treated them with anti-inflammatory medications. The preliminary tests came back positive, and the samples were tested a second time where the positive COVID results were confirmed.
During that time, some symptoms for the tigers continued to develop.
“Even just a little bit of exercise, just seemed like it was a little bit more labored breathing than for the amount of exercise that they were doing. So, just a little bit more exercise intolerance if you will, and a little bit of coughing, and a little bit of a kind of wheezing-type noises.”
Dr. Reilly said Oceola lost his appetite for day or two, but it did return, and he is doing well. Because of the positive tests for Oceola and Stubbley, the zoo decided to test its third tiger, Christopher, as a precaution. Sure enough, his test also came back positive, though Dr. Reilly says he was mainly asymptomatic.
“It is truly amazing to me, because among the three tigers, all three ended up being positive, but they all were very different in how affected they were by this virus,” said Dr. Reilly.
So, how did they get COVID in the first place?
“There’s really no way to know how it was spread to them, and there’s no way to investigate to test to even try to really find out how that could have happened,” Reilly said.
The zoo veterinarian says by the time they would have tested everyone who had been around the tigers, someone who was once positive could be negative, so there was no guarantee their contact tracing would be successful. She also says the virus did not have to come from a person.
“The hard part is, we will never know. Even if we wanted to try to go into an epidemiological investigation to try to trace back maybe what could have happened, sadly we’ll never know.”
Dr. Reilly says what they do know is big cats cannot give COVID to humans, but staff members still upped their PPE when they realized the tigers were sick. They began to wear N-95 masks around the tigers, as well as face shields. Dr. Reilly says they always wear gloves around the animals.
Now, all three tigers have fully recovered, and they are back on exhibit enjoying the sunshine. In the meantime, the zoo is focused on helping other zoos and scientists learn more about COVID in big cats.
“We also want to contribute to the body of knowledge about COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 in animal species,” Reilly said.