One Man’s Predator is Covid’s Prey

The push to vaccinate zoo animals against COVID-19. 

Humans: top of the food chain, apex predators, the most intelligent and developed creatures to walk the Earth.

We’ve got 300,000 years’ worth of science, history and culture to back those claims, not to mention the ability to survive and thrive in ever-changing circumstances. In our relatively short time on this planet, we’ve shaped the physical and social landscape in a way no other species has, earning our status as the Earth’s most advanced. And if the countless innovations and discoveries weren’t enough proof of human prestige, at least we can say we’re smarter than the animals.

 Except, we can’t.

  At least, 38% of Americans can’t. Neither can 31% of Floridians, or 40% of Duval County residents. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health, that’s the number of people over 12 years old who haven’t been vaccinated for COVID-19, and with impending inoculations for big cats and primates at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, it seems our genetic cousins have the upper hand.

  The Jacksonville Zoo announced that it plans to vaccinate some of its animals for COVID-19, joining a host of other zoos across the country giving their inhabitants the big stick. Jacksonville’s hardly the first to make the move — Illinois’ Brookfield Zoo started at the beginning of the month, the Oakland Zoo administered its first doses back in July, and the San Diego Zoo was vaccinating its apes with trial immunizations as early as March.

  These vaccines, made specially for animals, were developed by the veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis and approved by the United States Department of Agriculture. In a press release, the company said they began working on the vaccine last year, when the first dog to catch COVID tested positive in Hong Kong. After a cluster of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo tested positive for the virus in January, Zoetis distributed over 11,000 doses of their experimental vaccine to almost 70 zoos and more than a dozen sanctuaries, conservatories and other institutions across 27 states.

  So why just zoo animals? Why not vaccinate every beloved family dog or feral racoon rummaging through trash in the alleyway dumpsters? For one thing, the healthcare decisions of these animals are made by zoo employees—some of them licensed medical professionals—and not private citizens. Getting vaccinated is a choice, and though the animals themselves aren’t making the decisions, the people in charge of them are. That means Fido’s anti-vax owners can still keep their pooch far away from the clutches of the evil injection, but the local monkeys are left at the mercy of modern medicine.

  More importantly, zoo animals might face a bigger risk than house pets or animals in the wild. Research from the CDC shows that some animals, including primates and big cats, are more susceptible to catching COVID-19 than others. These animals in particular can not only contract COVID, but experience symptoms and get seriously ill.

  It’s also a matter of how the virus spreads. Research on how contagious animals are is, as of now, inconclusive, but research on how contagious humans are (read: very) is crystal clear. The Jacksonville Zoo currently doesn’t require masks or proof of vaccination to visit, and with hundreds of people making the trip daily, there’s no telling what those without proper protection are leaving behind. Yes, the animals are separated from patrons by sheets of glass or sectioned off in special enclosures, but zoo staff often have direct contact with them for feeding and other routine measures. It just takes one infected employee to spread the virus across the entire zoo.

  After all, that gorilla outbreak in San Diego started with a single asymptomatic zookeeper.

  In Jacksonville, vaccine administrations are planned for these “at-risk” animals, of which the zoo has plenty. The Southern black howler monkey, the Malayan tiger, and the hometown hero himself, the jaguar, are just a few of the animals housed there, and all have been deemed susceptible to catching COVID-19.

  A start date and long-term plans for the vaccinations are unknown as of now. Folio reached out to the Jacksonville Zoo multiple times for more information but did not get a response.

  As for the question of why the zoo has chosen to vaccinate its inhabitants, we can take a pretty good guess: vaccines, even in animals, are proven safe and effective.

  Animal inoculation is nothing new. One of first documented animal vaccines was developed by French chemist Louis Pasteur in 1879, a chicken cholera immunization that was quickly followed by a sheep and cattle anthrax vaccine in 1881. Since then, animal vaccines for a variety of diseases have been developed alongside human ones. In fact, vaccines for rabies, distemper, hepatitis and more are now considered commonplace for house pets.

  But vaccines have never gone down easy, animal or otherwise. Even in the 1800s, there was pushback—insistence that inoculations would drive human recipients “like dumb animals to the shambles,” as one anti-vaccine pamphlet in Montréal put it. The pamphlet dates back to 1885, right in the middle of the smallpox epidemic, and warns of the “tyranny of doctorcraft,” among other atrocities. In modern terms, it sounds a lot like those “infringements on freedom” pundits and patriots love to reference.

  Additional anti-vax propaganda from the era takes similar stances: the horrors of forced vaccinations, the threat to personal liberties, the danger of the vaccines themselves. Almost 140 years later, smallpox is a thing of the past, but the arguments against vaccinations are startlingly present. Despite life-saving science that’s wiped out a host of deadly diseases, resistance to it is seemingly impossible to eradicate.

  It’s a tale of two pandemics—one physical and one psychological—and Duval County isn’t innocent in either of them. In the former, cases are rising rapidly with no mask or vaccine mandate in sight, and in the latter, opposition to those masks or vaccines is stronger than ever.

  When News4Jax reported that The Jacksonville Zoo would be vaccinating its animals, the response was less than enthusiastic. One brave soul took a stab at the anti-vax crowd with an appeal to high death rates among the unvaccinated, but the attempt was lost in a sea of outrage.

  “Genocide,” one commenter wrote under the article. “Infection by injection.”

  It’s a bold, if socially irresponsible, claim. It’s also not accurate.

  Of the more than 369 million COVID vaccine doses administered in the United States, the CDC only reported 7,218 deaths. That’s only 0.002%, and according to the CDC, it’s difficult to link those deaths directly to vaccines in the first place. Compare that to a 1.6% death rate in the US for those diagnosed with COVID, and the riskier choice is glaringly apparent. Add the fact that you’re 15 times more likely to die from COVID if unvaccinated and that choice becomes impossible to ignore.

  The reality is the delta variant is surging, and its mountain of a projected peak makes molehills out of last summer’s highest points. Duval County reported its highest number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic this August, and though they’ve recently decreased, they’re still extremely high. And with back-to-school and football season in full swing, there’s no telling what the coming weeks will bring.

  The safest, most effective way to stop the spread is to get vaccinated. If every CDC PSA or government promotional tactic or celebrity endorsement isn’t enough to convince you, consider this your wakeup call: get the vaccine, and if you’re still saying no to the stick, at least wear a mask.

  Take a cue from our furry friends at the zoo. No dangerous conspiracies, no fear mongering, no mRNA discourse from overnight internet experts—just a safe and scientifically supported decision made for the betterment of the community. Right now, our spot at the top of the food chain is in jeopardy, so get the shot: if not for the health and safety or yourself and those around you, then for your pride.

  If not, we may just be one-upped by the animals.

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