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Florida panthers, skunks and primates among 1st to get vaccinated against COVID at ZooTampa

A zoo official said there have been no cases of animals contracting the virus.

TAMPA, Fla. — The push for protection against COVID-19 is moving past humans and into the animal world.

From lions and tigers in Washington, D.C., to gorillas in Atlanta and a ferret in South Florida, several animals across the country have tested positive for the virus.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park says it hasn't had any animals test positive but is getting ahead of the game by beginning to vaccinate animals that have been identified as most susceptible to COVID.

“The animals routinely get other vaccinations. Many of the animals are trained to present themselves to our animal care staff for minor medical procedures, including vaccinations," said Dr. Cynthia Stringfield in a statement. She's the zoo's senior vice president of Animal Health, Conservation and Education.

"We’re both thankful and relieved a special vaccine is now available to protect animals against COVID-19, some which are endangered and threatened species.”

It's not the same vaccine we humans are receiving. Rather, it's a shot that was developed specifically for animals by the Michigan-based veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. The animals need two doses given three weeks apart. ZooTampa started the process at the beginning of September. So far, about one-third of the animals have gotten their first dose.

So far none of the zoos participating in the investigative study have reported any side effects in animals.

"We don’t want any of our animals to get sick, we want to protect them, that’s our job," Stringfield added.

Zoetis applied decades of experience developing other antiviral vaccines for cats, dogs, poultry and cattle to create the specialized formula, ZooTampa said in a news release. Its COVID vaccine received investigational authorization from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

And ZooTampa isn't the first to do it. Several zoological organizations throughout the country have already started vaccinating their animals. Approximately 70 zoos, research institutions and sanctuaries are working with Zoetis, who has donated the doses. 

The goal is to have all of their animals vaccinated in the next few months.

ZooTampa has more than 1,000 animals in its care but is starting with certain species that have been deemed most vulnerable to the virus. Species such as Florida panthers, skunks, otters and primates are in line to get the shot first.

With this first shipment of about 220 doses, the zoo says it can vaccinate roughly 19 species, which includes 93 animals. 

“Our expert staff of animal care and medical professionals will continue to monitor our animals throughout the vaccination process closely,” Stringfield said.