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Animals at Singapore's wildlife parks monitored for signs of COVID-19

Animals at Singapore's wildlife parks monitored for signs of COVID-19

SINGAPORE — Wildlife parks here, including the Singapore Zoo, are monitoring its captive animals for Covid-19 infections after a recent episode in the New York City Bronx Zoo, where a tiger tested positive for the coronavirus.

Animal caregivers at the island’s four wildlife parks, which include the Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and River Safari, are closely observing the animals for signs of irregular behavior and illnesses, said Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, deputy chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

“During this time, clinical signs such as dry cough, lack of appetite and other respiratory concerns, that may be indicative of Covid-19, would be swiftly reported to trigger further examinations by the veterinary team,” he added.

WRS manages the island’s wildlife parks.

About 120 personnel, including those from the animal care and veterinary teams, are rostered daily to look after a total of 15,000 animals across the four parks.

Bronx Zoo officials had tested the tiger, named Nadia, after she started showing symptoms – a dry cough and a mild loss of appetite – last month.

On April 22, it said six other big cats that had been showing similar symptoms, and another tiger that never developed a cough, also tested positive for the virus.

According to the zoo, the animals contracted the virus from an infected zoo employee, who either had not exhibited any symptoms at that time or was asymptomatic.

There are also reports of infections in pets in Hong Kong, Belgium and other parts of the United States, as well as minks in two farms in the Netherlands.

However, Dr Cheng, who is also the chief life sciences officer of WRS, said the risk of humans contracting the virus from animals is very low.

Experts around the world share the same view. The World Health Organization has maintained that while experiments show that cats and ferrets are able to transmit the virus to other animals of the same species, there is no evidence that such animals can transmit the virus to humans and play a role in its spread.

The World Organization for Animal Health, an international organization that counts Taiwan and 181 countries as its members, has also said that there is no evidence pets play a significant role in spreading Covid-19.

The organization’s view is cited locally by the Animal and Veterinary Service , which comes under the National Parks Board.

Meanwhile, staff at Singapore’s wildlife parks have adopted additional protocols to prevent cross-transmission of diseases between them and animals under their care.

These include donning face masks and gloves when working with an animal, and the washing of hands with soap and water after any animal interaction, said Dr Cheng.

Staff are also minimizing or avoiding direct contact with the animals whenever possible, especially primates and carnivores, which are at a higher risk of being infected.

“Great apes are of specific concern, as they typically succumb to the same diseases as humans. To a certain extent, this is true for other primates as well,” Dr Cheng said.

He added that the carnivores have also proven to be susceptible, citing Nadia’s case and prior incidents of civets being infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), a coronavirus which hit Singapore in 2003.

The protocols complement those that were already in place before the Covid-19 outbreak, such as routine disease screening and vaccination of animals, as well as safe work practices by staff.

“For example, if one of our animal care staff is unwell and showing symptoms of a cold or fever, they will not come to work, for both their safety and our animals,” Dr Cheng said.

He said that WRS remains committed to ensuring the upkeep of the wildlife parks and the welfare of the animals, despite the decrease in revenue due to the wildlife parks’ temporary closure.

The organization is also grateful for the continuous support from its visitors over the years, he said.

“Without their support, we would not have been able to provide world class care for our animals and protect threatened wildlife in the wild,” he added.