Educational Series: Learn How to Protect Animals From Deadly Coronavirus

Earlier this month Nadia, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo, earned an unwelcome distinction: the majestic big cat became the first animal in the United States to officially test positive for COVID-19. Nadia was tested after she, four other tigers, and two lions at the zoo began exhibiting symptoms like the dry cough associated with COVID-19. The likelihood that the virus was passed from a human to the cats raises some important questions for animal lovers. How does COVID-19 affect the other species around us? What will the consequences of the disease be for wildlife? And how can both animals and people be protected from future outbreaks of germs that infect across species?

Like many other diseases–including avian influenza, Ebola virus, and Zika virus, to name a few–COVID-19 is suspected to have originally spread to humans from an animal carrier. In the case of COVID-19, this likely happened in a wildlife meat market in Wuhan, China. Though it is unknown exactly what animal carried the virus, researchers suspect it may have been transferred from a bat to a pangolin–a commonly trafficked animal–and from there to a person. Yet while it is certain that the virus can be transmitted back and forth between humans and at least some animals, the frequency with which this happens is less clear.

Since first infecting the human population in Wuhan, the subsequent appearance of COVID-19 around the world has been entirely or almost entirely a result of the virus spreading from person to person. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that transmission of the virus from animals to humans is rare; we would expect such a thing would most likely happen in an environment like a wildlife market, where people come into very close contact with a variety of live or recently-killed animals. There are no known cases of the virus being spread from humans to pets in the United States, although a few instances of this happening have been reported from other countries. The CDC also states that “To date, there is no evidence that pets can spread the virus to people.”

In short, if you are a pet owner you probably don’t need to be concerned about catching COVID-19 from your pet; in fact, the reverse is more likely to happen (though the chances are still low). To be on the safe side, the CDC recommends keeping some distance between yourself and your animals if you think you might have symptoms of infection or if you’ve been exposed to people who do.

Another question is whether and how COVID-19 might spread from humans to wild animals. There is much we simply don’t know about the virus and which animal species are most likely to be susceptible to it. However, it seems reasonable to guess it might spread more easily from humans to animals who are closely related to us, such as great apes. This possibility is especially worrying, considering that all six great ape species are already endangered and at high risk of extinction. The risk is great enough that conservation groups are recommending urgent action to prevent the potential exposure of apes in places where they come into close contact with humans (for example, countries in Central Africa and Southeast Asia where agriculture is expanding into wild ape habitat).

Finally, as governments and organizations around the world battle to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, we should be thinking about how to prevent the next global pandemic before it starts. Fully 75% of new infectious diseases are zoonoses, viruses that originate with animals and end up infecting humans. The majority of these zoonoses came originally from wild animals, and the obvious way to prevent this happening in the future is to limit close contact between these wild species and humans. This means cracking down on the wild meat and exotic pet trades. It also means acting to prevent the continued encroachment of agriculture and other human activities into wildlife habitat.

Fortunately, there are some early signs that governments are waking up to the danger of future zoonoses outbreaks. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic China is implementing a ban on consumption and farming of wild animals. Vietnam is working on similar legislation. While questions remain about how effectively such measures will be enforced, they are undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

At the same time, even though the COVID-19 outbreak originated in China it would be a grave mistake to think that curbing zoonoses is the sole responsibility of Asian countries. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the United States is one of the largest contributors to the global wildlife trade, accounting for an estimated 20% of the global market. Yet in the wake of COVID-19, the U.S. government has not taken any new action against this destructive trade on the scale of what China and Vietnam have proposed. To truly stem the trade in exotic wildlife and their parts, more action will be needed from the U.S. as well as other countries.

Also, just to be completely clear: the fact that the current pandemic began in China in no way means communities of Chinese descent are more likely to harbor the virus in the U.S. This is a racist myth which has unfortunately spread on social media, but has no basis in reality and does absolutely nothing to protect people or animals from the virus. There is also no reason at all to think culling wild bats, pangolins, or other already-threatened wildlife would do anything to prevent future disease outbreaks. The chances of an animal who is living undisturbed in its natural habitat transmitting a virus to humans is infinitesimally tiny; the real problem is people encroaching into animals’ space and putting both us and them at unnecessary risk.

If there is any silver lining to the tragedy of the global COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps it is that it has given us a chance to re-think our relationship with the non-human animal species with whom we share this planet. Just as social distancing between people has become a household word, we as a species need to start maintaining a respectful distance between ourselves and wild creatures. This certainly doesn’t mean you have to avoid spending time in wild places or isolate yourself from the natural world, but it does mean giving wild animals enough space to go about their lives in peace.

As for Nadia and the other tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo, they are receiving careful attention from veterinarians and are expected to recover.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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