Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo continues to provide COVID safety protocols while other zoos nationwide have suffered losses among their population.
In recent weeks, three snow leopards at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska and one snow leopard at the Great Plains Zoo in South Dakota have died due to COVID complications. And other zoos in St. Louis, New York, San Diego, Louisville and Denver are witnessing outbreaks.
That has not been the case at the 10-acre SF Zoo, which enforces protocols that keep their animals safe, SF zoo director Jonathan Miot said in a phone interview.
“A lot of the precautions that we initially installed are in place here at the zoo,” Miot said. “What we are doing is we have modified the zoo.”
For the animals that are susceptible to contracting the COVID virus, the zoo maintains a 12-foot barrier between the animals and the public. That includes temporary plexiglas and panels.
“That essentially protects them pretty well from somebody from the outside coming in and bringing something in,” Miot said.
As for the zoo employees working directly with the animals, there’s a separate set of safety procedures.
“Now for us, the staff and the students who work with the animals closely, when you’re closer to 12 feet to the animals you are required to have a mask on,” Miot said. “We’re concerned about the animal’s health at this point, not necessarily the animals giving the students or staff anything.”
In October, ZooTampa started giving experimental vaccines to its susceptible animals and Miot said that is something the SF Zoo is considering.
“We work with the University of Florida and we work with their wildlife veterinarians there and we consult with them on all of this,” Miot said. “We have discussed vaccines and, just like with everything, there is a pro and a con. And that’s what we have to do is go through the pros and cons to vaccinate and whether to not vaccinate.”
Miot said that process includes talking to other facilities and entities to gather as much data as possible.
“The reality is other facilities have a different setup than us and they’re able to do things that maybe we’re not as able to do quite as easily or readily,” he said.
And there’s also the risk that the vaccine could negatively affect the animals.
“Anytime you do anything with an animal that’s a medical procedure, there’s always some inherent risks,” Miot said. “So we want to balance the inherent risks of the animal procedures versus the vaccines.”
Miot pointed out that, just like with the human COVID vaccines, there is a lot of trials and testing that takes place.
“The scope of animal vaccines is much slower just because of the sheer number of [animals],” he said. “There’s just not as many, say, tigers to test the vaccine on, but you can look at cats and cats have very similar physiologies. So if you test on domestic cats, you can have a pretty good sense of what that would do for a tiger.”
Miot is very concerned about some animal species.
“One of our main concerns is our tree kangaroos,” he said. “Tree kangaroos are pretty rare and not a lot of zoos have them. Zoos have other marsupials, other kangaroos, but not a lot of tree kangaroos. So the testing on those guys is a lot more limited and those are the kind of animals that it’s a little bit trickier to do some wildscale decisions on.”
Besides the tree kangaroos, some of the other animals the zoo has taken extra safety precautions to protect include the white-handed gibbons, capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, lemurs, an axolotl and a pair of caracals.
“And our axolotl, she is geriatric, she’s an older animal. So just like in human populations, older individuals are probably more susceptible, pre-existing conditions are probably more susceptible, so these are assumptions we are making in trying to make sure we’re protecting these individuals as well,” Miot said.
The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and guided tours can be scheduled in advance. Admission rates range from $5 to $8.
“We’re doing our part to keep [our animals] safe, but we are open to the public, for people to come visit, to get outside and enjoy some nice weather and a nice open safe environment, so we encourage you to come visit and check out these animals,” Miot said.