The river otters at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore are among the animals being vaccinated against COVID-19. Photo: Maryland Zoo

Md. Zoo Otters to Get COVID Vaccine; Is Bay Wildlife at Risk?

It’s a headline that will get your attention: the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore will begin giving some of its animals the COVID-19 vaccine. And it may be just in time, as the National Zoo in Washington, DC announces nine lions and tigers are presumed positive with the coronavirus. Zookeepers there are seeing symptoms like decreased appetites, coughing, sneezing and lethargy, and possible pneumonia in the big cats.

Both zoos will administer a vaccine developed specifically for animals from the animal health company Zoetis this fall. “We have not had any cases of COVID-19 in the animals here, but the vaccine will add another layer of protection for the animals in our care,” says senior director Dr. Ellen Bronoson of the Maryland Zoo. “We plan to vaccinate those species at the Zoo that we have assessed to be most likely to contract SARS CoV-2, including the North American river otters, the chimpanzees and our cat species – Amur leopard, cheetah, bobcat, and lion,” says Dr. Bronson.

River otters are native to the Chesapeake Bay, which led Bay Bulletin to wonder: are wild otters at risk? Are any other Bay species at high risk? The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) points out that while several different species of wildlife nationwide have tested positive for COVID antibodies, most species haven’t shown clinical signs of illness. The weasel family (to which otters belong) and wild cat species are the exception.

“Maryland wild animals in those families, like river otters and bobcats (our only wild feline), typically avoid people. Here in Maryland, we have not seen evidence of die-offs or disease events,” DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz tells Bay Bulletin.

Bortz also says deer in Pennsylvania and other states are known to carry COVID antibodies, but no deer have been tested yet in Maryland, and none have shown symptoms. DNR will continue monitoring any new developments with wildlife and the coronavirus.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is also monitoring for any developments, but say the animals in their care don’t include the most at-risk species. “Although we still have much to learn about this particular coronavirus, we know some animals, such as felines, mustelids and great apes are more susceptible. The National Aquarium does not care for these particular species and currently does not have any plans to vaccinate animals in its care,” says Dr. Stephanie Allard, the aquarium’s Vice President of Animal Care and Welfare.

Allard notes that National Aquarium employees wear gloves and masks while caring for animals.

The Maryland Zoo also practices preventative measures to protect its animals. They say many of the animals they’ll vaccinate are already trained to willingly receive injections, and that training avoids the need to anesthetize the animal for minor medical procedures. The vaccine is authorized for use on a case-by-case basis by the USDA and state veterinarians.

The zoo says Zoetis is donating more than 11,000 doses to help protect more than 100 mammal species in 70 zoos and other animal care facilities.

Meg Walburn Viviano