By Conor McCue

DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Zoo plans to vaccinate some of its residents against COVID-19 within the next few weeks. Denver’s zoo is among dozens of zoos in the U.S. expecting a donation of doses from veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis.

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The vaccine is solely for animals and has been authorized for experimental use on a case-by-case basis by the United States Department of Agriculture, the company said.

“We are not taking any vaccines away from humans,” said Dr. Scott Larsen, the vice president of animal health at the Denver Zoo.

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Over the past year and a half there have been zero COVID-19 cases among animals at the Denver zoo, but transmission is possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) several big cats and non-human primates have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. According to the agency, it is suspected the animals became sick after being exposed to an animal caretaker with COVID-19.

“There’s a lot we don’t know in terms of the different mammals that might be affected by it, but we’ve certainly seen at other zoos throughout the U.S. during our experience with COVID, that gorillas have been affected, tigers and other big cats, snow leopards, lions,” Larsen said.

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According to Larsen, the first shipment of 40 doses is expected to arrive in the next two to three weeks, and vets will be able to begin giving shots within a few days. The initial batch will allow them to vaccinate 20 animals.

“We’re really going to be prioritizing our primates and our carnivores, particularly the great apes and the big cats,” Larsen said.

Last week, the Oakland Zoo was the first to administer the Zoetis shot to animals. According to Larsen, vets in Denver plan to roll it into the current preventive health program for the animals.

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“Our amazing keeper staff works with those animals, so they position themselves for vaccines, they’re used to getting it, it’s not a traumatic event,” He said.

Vets will proceed with caution, as trials and data about the vaccine are limited in many species, Larsen said.  The zoo will document each animal’s reaction to the vaccine and take blood samples when possible, to make sure they are healthy and being sufficiently protected.

“We’ll vaccinate, in the gorilla’s case, maybe one, maybe two. In the lions we may do two or three, and make sure it’s working before we give it to everybody,” Larsen said.

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By the end of the summer, the zoo could vaccinate up to 100 animals.

“It’s certainly going to give us a level of relief and protection that there’s another level of protection for our animals.”

Conor McCue