By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for the coronavirus in the first known cases of its transmission to non-human primates. The animals are believed to have contracted the virus from an asymptomatic zookeeper.
This is distressing news on many levels. While gorillas are not the first animals to contract the virus from humans—mink on fur farms and tigers at the Bronx Zoo have been infected by human workers at these facilities—there is special concern about how the virus will affect these great apes who share around 98% of their DNA with us. As we already know, the virus has killed nearly two million people worldwide as the pandemic rages on.
That concern is magnified when you consider the fact that the numbers of these gentle giants in the wild are already in decline.
All species of gorilla are, in fact, critically endangered and their populations are plummeting because of habitat loss, poaching and, notably, infectious disease. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park animals are western lowland gorillas whose numbers in the wild have dropped by more than 60% over the last 20 to 25 years, according to the WWF.
In captive settings, activities like petting and feeding wild animals or ambassador animals encounters, provide real openings for the spread of diseases by humans. Measles and the virus that causes cold sores in people can be deadly to some primate species. Primates too can spread a variety of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections that pose serious health risks to humans.
Unfortunately, many exhibits across the United States offer visitors contact with primates and other wild animals, as we’ve often reported. These places, which sell tickets by making tigers, lemurs, sloths, otters, kinkajous, kangaroos, anteaters and other wild animals appear adorable and approachable, are part of the problem. Wild animals have unique needs and suffer immensely when subjected to the stresses associated with public handling. The last thing they need is people taking selfies while putting their welfare at risk.
Last May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised facilities to discontinue close encounters with wild felines to protect the health and welfare of the animals and the public. But the agency has yet to prohibit public contact or advise against hands-on encounters with other species, including primates. We hope the Biden Administration will act on this important issue.
Fortunately, many states are now moving to ban such encounters. In 2020, Virginia passed a ban on public contact with bears, big cats, and primates, joining other states that already have such laws. In coming months, with your support, we'll be working with other states to introduce similar legislation to end human-wildlife interactions.
In the meantime, we’ll look forward to the speedy recovery of the gorillas in San Diego.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.