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San Diego Zoo Safari Park gorillas recover from COVID-19

Posted at 6:27 PM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 13:02:47-04

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (KGTV) -- It has been five months since apes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park made headlines for being the first known gorillas in the world to contract COVID-19. Their journey to recovery was a long and meaningful one.

The first few weeks of January were touch and go at the gorilla habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

"It was unnerving when it happened. We were nervous," the Safari Park's executive director, Lisa Peterson, said.

On Jan. 11, the world's first known COVID-19 cases in gorillas were found in the Safari Park's two oldest apes, 49-year-old Winston and 43-year-old Kami.

Staff described them as lethargic, had runny noses, and showed lung problems, which are all symptoms mirroring those of infected humans. Despite strict COVID protocols, it is believed that the two were infected by an asymptomatic staff member.

The eight-ape troop was immediately tested, and results showed Winston and Kami were positive for the California variant of the coronavirus. But they did not isolate them from their family.

"Because it would add stress if we tried to separate them or do anything differently, we decided to keep them together," Peterson said.

Instead, the entire troop quarantined together for six weeks. Both Kami and Winston received steroids and antibiotics.

In addition, Winston got monoclonal antibody treatment. The others showed mild symptoms but healed just with ibuprofen. When it came time for special animal vaccines, the 26 doses were given to orangutans, bonobos, and another gorilla troop at the zoo in Downtown San Diego.

"The decision was made by our veterinary team that we wouldn't give it [the vaccines] to our gorillas because they had the disease and they were building up the antibodies around it," Peterson said.

The vaccinated apes at the zoo showed no side effects. As for the troop at the Safari Park, they made a full recovery by Valentine's Day.

"The gorillas are doing great, and they're up to their old antics," Peterson laughed.

Despite their recovery, the work continues. Experts are observing the gorilla troop at the Safari Park closely to study the disease and its effects on animals around the world.

"We want to make sure that we can share that information because the information is power," Peterson said. "And that helps us to protect them and thereby help protect the communities that they might be coming in contact with."

Park officials said the animal vaccine company Zoetis is now monitoring the gorillas to see if they can expand the use of the vaccine for other species.