Tiger at Bronx Zoo Tests Positive for Coronavirus

©. Julie Larsen Maher/ WCS (used with permission)

The female is this first known tiger to have COVID-19; she is among seven big cats at the zoo showing signs of illness.

As New York City continues its grim role as the epicenter of COVID-19, news from Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo shows us that it's not just the city's humans who are vulnerable.

"Nadia, a 4-year-old female Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, has tested positive for COVID-19. She, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions had developed a dry cough and all are expected to recover," notes Max Pulsinelli Executive Director of Communications for WCS Zoos and Aquarium in a press release about the infection.

“It’s the first time, to our knowledge, that a [wild] animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person,” says Paul Calle, chief veterinarian for the Bronx Zoo. The Malayan tiger likely contracted the virus from an infected asymptomatic zookeeper. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Calle says.

The irony is hard to ignore. Most experts agree that the virus, which originated in animals, was first transferred to people at a Wuhan food market that trades in wildlife. That humans have brought it back to wild animals speaks to our, shall we say, "unique" relationship with the wild. WCS notes that there is no evidence that animals play a role in the transmission of COVID-19 to people other than the initial event in the Wuhan market, "and no evidence that any person has been infected with COVID-19 in the US by animals, including by pet dogs or cats."

[See more: Where did COVID-19 come from?]

So far, along with the cough, the cats have had some decrease in appetite, but are otherwise doing well under veterinary care and are "bright, alert, and interactive with their keepers." Nobody knows how the disease will develop in big cats – since different species can react differently to novel viruses – but WCS will continue to monitor the cats closely. They expect full recoveries.

Fortunately, none of the zoo’s snow leopards, cheetahs, clouded leopard, Amur leopard, puma or serval are showing any symptoms.

Appropriate preventive measures are now in place for staff who are caring for all the cats in WCS zoos to prevent further exposure.

While there have been scattered reports of companion animals becoming infected with the virus, the CDC reiterates that at this time (emphasis our own), "there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can become sick with or spread COVID-19."

It appears that additional information on the relationship between animals and the new coronavirus will be unfolding as we learn more. In the meantime, for information on pets and COVID-19, see: 6 questions pet owners are asking during the COVID-19 pandemic over at MNN.