Analysis of international affairs and current crises
Monday, May 18, 2020
The New Yorker
Some Zoos, and Some of Their Animals, May Not Survive the Pandemic
By Robin Wright
In late March, an elegant four-year-old tiger named Nadia, at the Bronx Zoo, developed a dry cough and lost her appetite. The zoo had been closed for eleven days because of the coronavirus pandemic, and no employee had symptoms of the new coronavirus sweeping across New York. Out of an abundance of caution, the veterinary staff tested Nadia in April, as her problems persisted. It was not a simple swab. The zoo had to anesthetize the two-hundred-pound cat and take samples from her nose, throat, and respiratory tract, then ship them off to veterinary labs at Cornell University and the University of Illinois. Nadia is also no ordinary tiger. Malayan tigers are among the world’s most endangered animals; with fewer than two hundred and fifty left in the wild, they are threatened with extinction because of human poaching and loss of habitat. Nadia was born at the Bronx Zoo, as part of its Malayan-tiger breeding program. Her covid-19 test came back positive. By the end of April, seven other big cats—four more tigers, in addition to three lions who live in a separate exhibit—also tested positive, through samples of their feces. The zoo concluded that they had all been exposed to a human, probably a zoo employee, who was asymptomatic. The news about Nadia stunned staff at more than two hundred accredited U.S. zoos (not including animal “exhibitors,” like Joe Exotic, of “Tiger King” fame) and more than ten thousand zoos around the world. Within twenty-four hours, many introduced stricter handling protocols, more protective gear, and social distancing between humans and zoo animals—not just tigers but also other animals now believed to be vulnerable to covid-19, from great apes to ferrets and even skunks.
But Nadia’s test result six weeks ago was only the beginning of an unprecedented series of crises—some existential—faced by zoological parks dedicated to the study and survival of thousands of the Earth’s other animal species. Unlike entertainment centers, movie theatres, or sports stadiums, zoos can’t simply shut their doors or tell staff to work from home. Zoos still have to feed and care for animals—nearly a million, from six thousand species (a thousand of them endangered or threatened) in the United States alone—at a time in which revenues have plummeted to nothing. Read on....