Potter Park Zoo vaccinates animals against COVID-19

Drew Goretzka | Spartan Newsroom | December 10, 2021

Potter Park Zoo has begun vaccinating the park’s animals for COVID-19.

The move comes after reports of numerous zoo animals across the country testing positive for the virus. Potter Park Zoo Animal Care Supervisor Pat Fountain said that as cases started rising, the staff knew they would have to vaccinate their animals.

“They were finding that it was happening in a lot of big cats and things like that,” Fountain said. “As a different number of animals grew, it became clear that it was a much bigger deal for the animals.”

Vaccines were donated by New Jersey-based animal health company Zoetis Inc., which makes one of the few approved COVID-19 vaccines for animals.

Fountain said the zoo is starting with high-risk animals. He named the zoo’s large felines and sea otters as the biggest priority.

There is also more urgency in recent months with the surge of the delta variant. According to Fountain, the new strain is hitting animals nationwide harder than previously.

“So getting them vaccinated as quickly as possible was important for us,” Fountain said. “There will be another phase, hopefully, with other species in the zoo.”

Vaccinating animals brings more challenges than vaccinating humans, according to Fountain. Limiting animal stress is the biggest priority, and staff implemented numerous strategies to relieve it.

“I do train the animals daily to get used to the idea of being poked or getting shots or getting their blood drawn, or anything like that,” Fountain said. “It’s more about the stress of the animal than anything. So we don’t want to overstress any of them because they can get sick or hurt.”

There have been no significant issues during the vaccine process so far, Fountain said.

Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine professor Srinand Sreevatsan said the Zoetis vaccine Potter Park Zoo is using has shown good protection and minimal side effects.

“I don’t see why there would be any kind of side effects,” Sreevatsan said. “And in terms of their own clinical trials they have done in their internal laboratories, (it) shows very good, robust antibody responses.”

Sreevatsan said the vaccine uses a recombinant spike protein— a method that does not closely resemble any of the human COVID-19 vaccines currently approved worldwide.

In a Facebook post by the zoo highlighting the vaccination of the zoo’s snow leopard, Taza, commenters cheered on staff and thanked Zoetis for the donation.

Parkii Gillis, a fan of the zoo, said she approves the move. She said protecting endangered animals is an important reason for administering the vaccines.

“It’s even more important that (the endangered animals) stay healthy,” Gillis said. “If we were to lose animals that were already critically endangered, when they could be given something that could help keep them safer, it would just be absolutely tragic.”