SAN DIEGO — Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to an announcement from the park Monday.
The pandemic has been widespread in San Diego County for months, but this is the first time any San Diego Zoo Global animals have tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s also the first confirmed instance of the virus infecting any of the great apes, a group that includes gorillas, bonobos, chimps and orangutans.
“They are doing well. They’ve got some minor symptoms, but they’re drinking and eating,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director of the Safari Park. “We can tell the difference because our team works so closely with them.”
Peterson said that more than one gorilla has tested positive but would not provide an exact number. Safari Park staff are now carefully monitoring the entire troop with the assumption that all of the gorillas are or could soon be infected.
The park first suspected the gorillas could have been exposed to the virus when a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus more than a week ago. While the employee did not have COVID-19 symptoms, nearly half of the pandemic’s spread comes from asymptomatic infections, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
That meant there was a chance the keeper could have infected the troop. Humans share about 98% of our DNA with gorillas.
Staffers noticed that some of the gorillas seemed a bit slower-moving than usual and were sneezing and huffing a bit as they breathed. So they collected fecal samples and tested them for the coronavirus. On Friday, they got back a positive result that they confirmed Monday morning with the help of a veterinary lab run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For the moment, the plan is to closely monitor the gorillas and make sure they are eating and drinking enough to recover on their own.
“They’re quite resilient because they have to be,” Peterson said. “In their natural setting, they need to keep moving and be very alert.”
But, she adds, the park’s veterinary team is talking with physicians across the county about potential treatment options.
Both the Zoo and Safari Park are closed to the public, but employees still come in to care for the 6,500 animal species at both facilities. The two parks routinely check employee temperatures and have staff fill out questionnaires about possible COVID-19 exposure each day.
Peterson says the Safari Park plans to get even stricter with its protocols. Staff who enter the gorilla enclosure will now wear a pair of disposable overalls over their work clothes. Keepers who already had to wear masks now must also wear eye protection.
The Safari Park’s gorillas routinely get flu vaccines, and it’s possible that they will one day be vaccinated against COVID-19. But there’s no plan for that to happen any time soon.
“I would never want to speculate on when that might be possible,” Peterson said. “We need to focus on the human side of this first and really get it under control in our communities.”