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Yes, animals at the North Carolina Zoo got the COVID-19 vaccine too

 Animal Management Supervisor Chris Goldston administers a COVID vaccine shot to silverback gorilla "Mosuba" on Oct. 19, 2021.
NC Zoo
Animal Management Supervisor Chris Goldston administers a COVID vaccine shot to silverback gorilla "Mosuba" on Oct. 19, 2021.

There’s a steady decline in COVID-19 cases in North Carolina — a trend that Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday called “good news."

People are eating at restaurants, attending concerts and sporting events. And they’re going to the zoo.

The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro has entertained a record number of visitors since reopening during the pandemic. June 2021 set a record with 103,898 visitors — the most of any June in the zoo’s history.

These days, masks are not required at the zoo, unless you are in indoor areas or the Acacia Station Giraffe Deck. But it’s strongly recommended you wear a mask if you have not been vaccinated.

We know everyone does not follow the rules and people often find out they have COVID after it’s too late. That’s why the North Carolina Zoo decided to vaccinate some of the animals.

“I think that’s very interesting, I didn’t think they could get vaccines like that,” said Brandy Wallace of Carthage, N.C., holding his toddler son, Sawyer. Wallace says the gorillas are Sawyer's favorite animal to visit at the zoo.

a container of vials with the Zoetis vaccine
NC Zoo
NC Zoo Vet Hospital Manager Heather Scott holds a container of vials with the Zoetis vaccine on Oct. 19, 2021.

Last Saturday, visitors young and old stopped by the Gorilla Exhibit. Folks had their cameras out, fighting for a spot near the glass window to see “Mosuba,” the silverback, and the six other gorillas in the troop. All have received their first dose of the Zoetis COVID-19 vaccine, made specifically for animals.

Jesse Steel of New Bern, N.C., was surprised about the vaccinations, but not his daughter Lily.

“I can kind of see the logic in that though,” said Lily Steel. “There’s logic in that they’re both primates so I can see where people might be afraid [the gorillas would] catch it from us.”

Dr. Jb Minter is the director of Animal Health at the North Carolina Zoo — the “Chief Veterinarian.” He says Lily is correct.

“So when you think about chimps and gorillas, they share 98% of our DNA,” said Minter. “We already assumed before the first gorilla came down with COVID they were going to be very susceptible to the disease, just like you and I.”

Minter says after the COVID outbreaks at the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Atlanta, they made sure they were on the list to receive the Zoetis vaccine. The North Carolina Zoo was given six vials with 11 doses in each vial. Thirty-three animals were given their first of two doses last week.

“We were able to get all 16 chimpanzees, all seven gorillas. We were able to get two lions, two mountain lions, one sand cat and four baboons,” said Minter.

Dr. Jb Minter
Leoneda Inge
NC Zoo Director of Animal Health Dr. Jb Minter on Oct. 23, 2021.

Minter says he is not concerned that zoo visitors would give the animals COVID, but that the caregivers, who have direct contact with animals, may pass it along. He says the current state mandates do not require his staff to be vaccinated, but he thinks most of them are.

Minter also says he wants zoo visitors to know, many of their animals are used to being vaccinated.

“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,” said Minter. “They get rabies vaccines, they get tetanus vaccines just like you and I.”

Young chimpanzees even get the MMR vaccine and the polio vaccine.

The 33 animals who received their first COVID shot will get their second shot three weeks later, just like humans who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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