The Lahore Zoo recently lost two white tiger cubs, presumably to Covid-19, leaving many a pressing question
Ever since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, there has been speculation about whether or not animals could contract the virus and transmit it to humans. Despite observance of safety protocols, a number of cases have been reported in different parts of the world where minks, big cats, gorillas and dogs had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. No such reports came out from Pakistan until recently when the death of two white tiger cubs (a male and a female) at the Lahore Zoo was put down to a suspected Covid-19 infection in an autopsy report by the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (UVAS), Lahore.
A bit of background: In 2019, the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum gifted 18 tigers and lions to Pakistan for wildlife conservation. Of these, a pair of white tigers that had been kept at the Lahore Zoo gave birth to four cubs in December 2020, none of which survived. According to reports, two (cubs) expired shortly after birth while the other two survived until they fell ill and died on January 30.
Initially, the news upset only the animal rights activists. After the autopsy report from the UVAS panic spread to other quarters as well. Cubs in zoos are often hand-reared as some mothers tend to neglect their offspring. Such cubs lack natural immunity and tend to fall sick. The deputy director of Lahore Zoo, Kiran Saleem, tells this scribe that the first three months are critical for the cubs that are susceptible to a viral infection called feline panleukopenia, common in the cat family.
The cubs at the Lahore Zoo were being hand-reared as their mother had refused to tend them. After the reports of their sickness and eventual death surfaced, all handlers and staff were tested for Covid-19. Six of them tested positive. On the basis of the reports safety protocols were enhanced.
Saleem says that “the reports do not clearly indicate that the cubs died of coronavirus. As our staff had tested positive, we ensured disinfection of all areas where the cubs lived.
“Testing animals with nasal swabs is not possible without sedating them, which can be very risky,” she adds. “So, the UVAS carried out a full screening of animals. Fecal and water samples were taken for testing, and liming was done in enclosures.”
Animal cubs in zoos are often hand-reared as some mothers tend to neglect their offspring. Such cubs lack natural immunity and tend to fall sick. The deputy director of Lahore Zoo, Kiran Saleem, says, the first three months are critical for the cubs that are susceptible to a viral infection called feline panleukopenia, common in the cat family.
It may be mentioned here that the Lahore Zoo is spread over 24-acres. It is home to 1,180 animals, birds and reptiles of over a hundred species. Saleem says all animals are medically examined regularly. “Any [animal] showing the slightest of symptoms is immediately isolated, tested and treated.”
The autopsy report by the UVAS stated that the cubs’ lungs had been damaged as they had suffered from severe infection. The report said it was a case of “suspected coronavirus” infection.
Attempts to contact the university administration for their input failed. However, Dr Abid Hussain, a veterinary doctor who runs a pets’ clinic in Lahore, said he believed that the cubs “were indeed suffering from Covid.” He said this was the first such case in Pakistan.
In November last year, Denmark culled its entire population of roughly 15 million minks in farms after it was found that the animals had spread a “mutation of the coronavirus to humans.” In Colorado, USA, the scientists administered an “experimental” coronavirus vaccine to about 120 black-footed ferrets, to prevent a breakout. The Centre for Disease Control and Preventions in the USA explained that “there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, to people.”
Dr Hussain explains, “According to the research available at the moment, animals can only contract virus from humans if their [the animals’] immunity is low. They cannot transfer it to humans. In case the animals are living together in close proximity the chances of an outbreak increase.”
In the context of the Lahore Zoo incident, Dr Hussain says, “If any of the handlers or staff members tests [Covid-19] positive, they must be kept away not only from humans but also animals.”
Regarding the treatment of coronavirus for animals, he says, “It’s the same as that for humans. However, it might take time for a vaccine for animals to be developed and used effectively.”
Dr Uzma Khan of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan believes that it is “unfortunate that the cubs were not tested immediately when they fell sick. After their death it became hard to ascertain if it was due to the [Covid-19] virus.
“Presently, everyone is vulnerable to the virus; it’s not just us or the animals. It’s imperative that safety protocols are strictly followed.”
Last year, the Islamabad Zoo was shut down on the orders of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) when it was established that animals were not being treated well. Eventually, most of the animals were shifted to various sanctuaries across the country, while Kaavan, the elephant, and two bears were sent abroad due to lack of adequate facilities in Pakistan. Since then, animal rights activists have been demanding that the government shut down all zoos in the country, because the animals are routinely mistreated there.
The writer is an independent journalist, based in Lahore. She tweets @umaimablogger