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Columbus Zoo Has 10,000 Animals, Plus Employees, To Keep Safe From COVID-19

An elephant at the Columbus Zoo, which is closed under the state's coronavirus orders.
Columbus Zoo
An elephant at the Columbus Zoo, which is closed under the state's coronavirus orders.

Columbus Zoo officials already had their pandemic plan in action when the Bronx Zoo reported a tiger tested positive for the coronavirus. Three other tigers and several lions at that zoo are showing symptoms.

“What surprised me mostly is that is that this infection has been going on for some time all over the world and I’m surprised that we would get a case in a tiger now and not before,” says Columbus Zoo vice president of animal health Randy Junge.

The four-year-old tiger in New York is believed to be the first animal to get infected from COVID-19 in the world.

The Columbus Zoo has been closed to the public since March 16. Junge explains the plan of action at the zoo includes limiting interaction between people and the 10,000 zoo animals.

“We divided our staff up into teams, so we have small working groups to decrease the amount of cross contamination and infection,” Junge says. “So we’ve been diligently watching our animals since the beginning.”

Employees wear masks, gloves and other protective gear while working on the zoo grounds. They also maintain a safe six-foot distance from each other, as state officials have insisted.

“We haven’t had any animals showing any signs,” Junge says. “We haven’t had any staff showing any signs.”

Junge says testing animals for COVID-19 is not worth the risk.

“For us to test our lions and tigers, we’d have to do a general anesthesia. Obviously they’re not going to let me take a nasal swab voluntarily,” Junge says. “We’d have to anesthetize them, so there’s a risk involved in that. So, unless we saw evidence that an animal had an infection, we wouldn’t do a general anesthesia just to take a nasal swab.”

Junge says the zoo will remain closed for now.

“Once we get over the peak and the numbers start declining and the governor decide it’s OK to start opening up some of the public venues, then we’ll based on his recommendation open when we feel like it’s safe,” Junge says.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.