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Zoo animals are getting their COVID vaccines, too

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two-thirds of Americans have now received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, there's another population to get inoculated. Nearly 70 zoos are using an experimental animal vaccine. Leoneda Inge of member station WUNC takes us to one of them.

LEONIDA INGE, BYLINE: People have been visiting the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in droves since it lifted restrictions due to the pandemic. Masks are not required unless you're indoors or on the giraffe deck. But the facility strongly recommends guests wear masks if they're not vaccinated. Because it's hard to know who has COVID, the North Carolina Zoo decided to vaccinate some of its animals.

BRANDY WALLACE: I think that's very interesting (laughter). I didn't know they could get vaccines like that.

INGE: Brandy Wallace is holding her toddler son, Sawyer. They were in the crowded gorilla habitat, pointing out the troop as Mosuba, the silverback gorilla, strolled by.

WALLACE: And the gorillas are his favorite (laughter).

INGE: All seven gorillas have been vaccinated against COVID, and so have the 16 chimpanzees, a few baboons and big cats. Visitor Jesse Steel was also surprised about the vaccination news, but not his daughter Lily.

JESSE STEEL: Didn't know the gorillas got COVID vaccines or COVID, so news to us.

LILY STEEL: There's logic in that. They're both primates, so I can see where people might be afraid they'd catch it from us.

INGE: Dr. Jb Minter is the director of animal health at the North Carolina Zoo, the chief veterinarian. He says Lily is right.

JB MINTER: So when you think about chimps or you think about gorillas, they share 98% of our DNA. So we already assumed before the first gorilla came down with COVID that they were going to be very susceptible to the disease just like you and I were.

INGE: Minter's instincts were correct. There are reports of great apes at the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Atlanta contracting COVID. Minter says so far, none of their animals have tested positive.

MINTER: COVID negative - knock on wood. They likely came down with a cold. That cold went with throughout the rest of the troops, so everybody had a snotty nose. We tested several animals. They were all negative. Again, I know several institutions where the whole troop of gorillas, or at least most of the troop of gorillas, tested positive. So again, we've been pretty lucky.

INGE: The North Carolina Zoo is using an experimental vaccine for animals manufactured by Zoetis. The U.S. company distributes medicines and vaccinations for pets and livestock worldwide. Zoetis says it initially developed its COVID vaccine in early 2020, when the first dog was reported to be infected in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use on apes at the San Diego Zoo. Minter says after promising results there, he accepted the free vaccine for his animals.

MINTER: I've heard comments of, oh, my God, I can't believe you're vaccinating your animals. But what I really want everybody to understand is we vaccinate these animals all the time. They get rabies vaccines. They get tetanus vaccines just like you and I.

INGE: And Minter says, for the record, he's more worried about animal care, veterinarian, horticulture staff spreading COVID to the animals than visitors. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Asheboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.