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11 African lions at the Denver Zoo test positive for COVID-19

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Posted at 11:27 AM, Oct 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-26 00:00:01-04

DENVER — Officials with the Denver Zoo said on Monday that 11 African lions have tested positive for COVID-19.

The lions range in age from 1 to 9 years old, officials said.

The animals were tested through nasal swab samples after staff noticed they were coughing, sneezing, and appeared lethargic.

Zoo officials said their symptoms are relatively mild at this point, but staff will continue to monitor and treat the animals. It's not clear how they contracted the virus.

"It could be somebody that was asymptomatic, and we just never knew," said Brian Aucone, Senior Vice President for Life Sciences for the Zoo. "It's a bit of a mystery how they contracted it."

This outbreak comes two weeks after the zoo reported that tests on two Amur tigers came back positive for the virus. Aucone said the lions did not contract the virus from the tigers because the animals don't share any of the same spaces and they each have different teams caring for them. The tigers were observed having similar symptoms as the lions.

“There have been a number of big cats to come down with COVID-19 at zoos throughout the country, including our two tigers, Yuri and Nikita,” Aucone said. “Fortunately, the vast majority have fully recovered, and the upside is that there’s an established knowledge base for us to draw from to help treat our animals. We’ve been in touch with other zoos that have also recently managed COVID cases in their big cats to inform the care we’re providing.”

Like the tigers, the lions are not vaccinated for COVID-19, but the zoo plans to vaccinate them and other big cat species as soon as more doses of the animal-specific vaccine become available.

"We're just waiting for more supply to be available because we know that large cats and such are susceptible to it," Aucone said. "Think it's within the next two or three months is what they're expecting that more will be available."

The zoo said it has had several protective measures in place, including use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, employee self-screening and health management. In 2020, it also installed protective barriers around the tigers’ habitat to ensure safe distancing between guests and the animals.

Denver7 reporter Pattrik Perez contributed to this report.