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Louisville Snow Leopard Tests Positive For COVID-19

A snow leopard at the Louisville Zoo has tested positive for coronavirus. It’s the first confirmed case of the virus in a snow leopard.

Louisville Zoo Senior Veterinarian Zoli Gyimesi said the zoo’s snow leopards were tested after showing mild symptoms. 

“For about the last two weeks, all three of our snow leopards have been exhibiting very mild very intermittent clinical signs, respiratory symptoms, consistent with a dry cough or wheeze,” Gyimesi said. 

Fecal samples from the leopards were sent to the University of Illinois for evaluation, and NeeCee, the 5-year-old female leopard, tested positive. Results from two male leopards, Kimti and Meru, are still pending.

Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak said keepers have been wearing PPE since the pandemic began, but it’s likely the leopards contracted the virus from an asymptomatic handler. hey work closely with the animals under their care, and tend to notice quickly when something is wrong, Walczak said.

“Our staff does a great job in monitoring the health of our animals,” he Walczak said. “The best example I can give -- it’d be like having a parent that’s a nurse that spends nine hours a day with you. Our keepers are acutely aware of the animals’ slightest signs.”

Zoo officials say they don’t anticipate any widespread testing of other zoo animals. COVID-19 testing for animals has to be approved by the State Veterinarian and the State Public Health Veterinarian.

The CDC has said that animals haven’t played a significant role in the spread of coronavirus, but it can pass between humans and certain species of non-human animals

Gyimesi said coronavirus has been found in other big cats — it was found earlier this year amonglions and tigers in the Bronx Zoo — so the diagnosis wasn’t shocking. “Snow leopards are the same genus as lions and tigers,” he said, “so it makes sense the virus could affect them similarly.”

COVID-19 symptoms tend to be mild in big cats, and Gyimesi said it’s not considered life-threatening. The leopards in Louisville are expected to make a full recovery.

“The fact that they’re not lethargic and they don’t miss a meal tells us they’re not feeling too badly,” Gyimesi said. 

For now, they’re off exhibit while being monitored by veterinary staff, and while the other two leopards’ tests are processed.  

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.

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