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‘Stress among animals over swabs… Some still wait for lioness Neela to return’

On June 16, 12-year-old Asiatic lion, Pathbanathan, succumbed to Covid at the Vandalur zoo. It was the second such incident at the zoo, which lost nine-year-old lioness Neela on June 3. Of the 15 lions here, 10 have tested positive so far.

Written by Janardhan Koushik |
Updated: June 20, 2021 11:53:18 am
At zoo, staff takes nasal, rectal samples to test for Covid. (Express photo)

On June 16, 12-year-old Asiatic lion, Pathbanathan, succumbed to Covid at the Vandalur zoo. It was the second such incident at the zoo, which lost nine-year-old lioness Neela on June 3. Of the 15 lions here, 10 have tested positive so far.

Naga Sathish, deputy director, Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Chennai on covid symptoms among animals.


How do you test the big cats for Covid-19?

We take nasal, rectal, faecal and blood samples. For a big cat like a lion, we can collect samples by either immobilising the animal or sedating it, but we are not doing the latter because it can compromise their immunity. We use the ‘squeeze cage’ technique — once the animal enters the cage, we ‘squeeze’ it using hydraulics, restraining the animal’s movement. Our doctors then take the swab.

What symptoms did the Covid-positive animals show?

We have around 53 big cats at the park. Among those that tested positive, loss of appetite was the first symptom. We get a ‘feed report’ every day and we immediately examine animals that are rejecting the feed… Some also had nasal discharge and fever.

What steps is the zoo taking to stop the spread of coronavirus?

As soon as the second lockdown was announced in Tamil Nadu, our park was closed for the public. Temperature check is done for all the workers before they enter the zoo. We have kept sanitizer bottles at the entrance too. We are also regularly conducting RT-PCR tests on our 352 staff members in batches. They are all vaccinated.

In animals, the infection can spread through human contact or through their feed. We have made PPE kits mandatory for those dealing with the big cats. We are sanitising the animal cells with sodium hypochlorite daily, apart from using turmeric powder to keep the premises clean. The beef for the big cats is procured from an authorised centre in Perambur, Chennai. We use cloth containers for its transportation and pass them through UV radiation chambers to eliminate any contamination. We have segregated all the feed trays — one tray for one animal.

Is there still a fear among staff at the zoo?

We have lost two big cats, so there is some fear.

5Since the pandemic, has there been any behavioral change in the animals?

Though the park doesn’t have visitors, we are trying to ensure that the daily activities of the animals are not disturbed. But yes, there is some stress about the ‘squeeze cage’ process used for taking swabs. The doctors say some of the lions who were in the same enclosure as Neela, still wait for her to return.

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