Calgary Zoo takes extra COVID-19 precautions with pregnant gorilla by limiting human contact

Yewande, a 12-year-old western lowland gorilla, is expecting her first baby, the Calgary Zoo announced Monday. This comes a day before news broke that there has been a known transmission of the COVID-virus to apes.

News of the expecting gorilla comes day before 2 U.S. primates contract COVID-19

The Calgary zoo is minimizing the chance of a human-to-primate transmission with enhanced safety protocols. (Calgary Zoo)

After two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for COVID-19, the Calgary Zoo says staff will try to limit contact time with its pregnant gorilla, Yewande.

A statement posted on the Safari Park website said the gorillas were suspected of having contracted infection "from an asymptomatic staff member," despite employees following all COVID-19 safety precautions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's believed to be the first known transmission of the virus to apes.

Doug Whiteside, a senior veterinarian at the Calgary Zoo, says he was surprised to hear the news.

"It obviously shows that despite our best precautions, sometimes the virus does get through," he said.

In the Calgary Zoo's case, Whiteside says staff undertook extra precautions early on.

"We actually had based our precautions based on the big cat experiences, the fact that a number of big cat species — lions, tigers, snow leopards — had contracted COVID."

"We're making sure that staff basically do a self-assessment each day before they come to work in terms of, you know, whether they're feeling ill or not," he said.

He says once staff arrive at the zoo, precautions include sanitizing, frequent handwashing and wearing surgical masks and gloves when dealing with food prep or cleaning the animals' habitat. 

"If they are within six feet of any of the primates … for training purposes or for feeding or things like that, then in addition to the mask and gloves that they're wearing, they're also wearing a face shield," he said.

Zoo's gorilla with child

An ultrasound image shows that Yewande is expecting a baby. (Calgary Zoo)

The news of the first human-to-primate transmission comes after the zoo announced on Monday its 12-year-old western lowland gorilla is expecting her first baby.

Whiteside says while COVID-19 precautions are being applied to all the gorillas, the mama will spend less time around humans.

"Any of our gorillas are potentially susceptible.… The cautions that we take are not only relevant to not only our pregnant gorilla but also with our other gorillas," he said.

"But in particular, making sure that for the pregnant female that they really limit the amount of contact time," he said.

And if any gorillas do test positive for COVID-19, the vet says quarantine protocols would be enhanced.

"Making sure that our troop is put into quarantine, really limiting the access of people and staff at the zoo to those back areas and trying to limit the amount of interactions that we actually have with the gorillas during that time," he said.

As for the delivery of the zoo's baby gorilla, the vet says a plan has been outlined with the animal care teams.

"Gorillas in general tend not to have a lot of difficulties giving birth. So we want to just kind of monitor from afar and then let the troop and her, you know, go to a natural birthing process.

"The second step is, if there are complications, then we have procedures in place to deal with any potential complications associated with pregnancy."

If all goes well, the baby gorilla will be ready for public display in June or July.

With files from Huyana Cyprien.


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