A moment that has been feared since the pandemic began has now occurred, as western lowland gorillas at San Diego Safari Park tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. So far the gorillas appear to be relatively unaffected by the virus, but the announcement confirms the critically endangered species is susceptible to the virus, adding to fears for their safety in the wild.
On January 6, staff at the safari park noticed that two of their eight gorillas were coughing. They sent fecal samples to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System which revealed the presence of the virus, by which time a third gorilla was showing symptoms. Follow-up testing by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed infection on Monday.
“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” the park's executive director Lisa Peterson said in a statement. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”
The troop's strong bonds mean the risk of those with the virus infecting the others is very high. However, those same bonds mean that any separation, even a temporary one, would affect their mental health. Given the high chance an infected animal would be included on the wrong side of any attempt to divide the sick and the well, park staff opted to keep the gorillas together.
The troop includes Joanne and her mother Imani. Unusually for a gorilla, Joanne was born by c-section at the park in 2014, after complications in labor threatened her health.
The park is consulting doctors who have treated humans with COVID-19 to prepare to take action if any of the gorillas' conditions worsen.
The park has been shut to the public since early December, and it is thought the gorillas caught the virus off an asymptomatic keeper. Masks and other PPE were required for working around all animals suspected of being susceptible, but as we have learned to our cost, the virus often finds a way.
“For almost one year our team members have been working tirelessly, with the utmost determination to protect each other and the wildlife in our care from this highly contagious virus,” Peterson said.
The announcement confirms fears that wild gorillas could become infected. On the other hand, the mild response mitigates fears the virus would be an instant death sentence for our nearest relatives. The severity of the disease appears to vary widely by species, with big cats at the Bronx Zoo infected in April fairing well, while mink have been mass culled from fears they could spread a mutated form. However, it's definitely too early to be confident gorillas will survive unscathed.
Just as the virus crossed to humans from bats, possibly (but probably not) infecting pangolins on the way, there were fears from the beginning it could move from humans to endangered species of animals. Most concerning were our nearest relatives, the great apes, who are usually susceptible to the same diseases as us.
Extensive efforts have been made to keep wild great ape populations disease free, even at the cost of shutting down programs whose income helps fund conservation programs.