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Essential Workers Adjust To A ‘New Normal’ At The Louisville Zoo

A closed sign at the Louisville Zoo on April 2, 2020.
A closed sign at the Louisville Zoo on April 2, 2020.

The Louisville Zoo has been shut down since mid-March following restrictions on public assembly due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But some of the zoo’s staff can’t do their work remotely, so essential personnel, like maintenance and veterinary staff, are still reporting to duty while adjusting to a new normal of maintaining enough physical distance between each other and between the animals.

“It's not like we just turn the lights off, and everyone just comes back to work when the zoo can open again,” Dr. Zoli Gyimesi, senior staff veterinarian at the Louisville Zoo, said. “It's a living collection.”

They’ve adapted to a split work schedule, with one team of workers on for three or four days and then off several days while the next team comes in, making sure there’s “no overlap…so we don’t cross paths with the other team,” he said. 

Then came thenews of a tiger at the Bronx Zoo testing positive for COVID-19. This was the first instance of an animal testing positive for this virus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And researchers found the virus in the tiger to be nearly identical to the virus infecting humans.

“Our cats are healthy,” Gyimesi said. 

Even before news broke about the sick tiger, the members of the Louisville Zoo staff were taking precautions to protect the animals and people on site, he said, including asking staff to take their temperature before coming to work, frequent hand washing and staying six feet or more apart while at work. 

“So we've taken further precautions by having staff wear masks around cats,” Gyimesi said. “We're already doing that with some other species in the zoo, like our non-human primates, our black footed ferrets and our collection of bats.”

These are animals in which, it's believed, coronaviruses can infect and replicate, he explained. 

He said they’ve also suspended all elective procedures for animals

“Typically, as a veterinary department, we're really focused on preventative medicine,” he said. “You know, a nutrition program, a parasite program, a pest control program, vaccinations…With this new normal of COVID-19 and the zoo being closed, we're mainly focused on just animals that are sick, need attention or are on medications.”

In regards to your household pet, the CDC has said there’s no evidence that domestic animals can spread the virus to humans. However, the agency does recommend that people who are sick should avoid contact with their pets