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Snow leopard dies, five remaining big cats have COVID-19 symptoms at Sioux Falls zoo

Baya the snow leopard
Akron Zoo
Baya the snow leopard

A snow leopard died Thursday as the five remaining big cats at the Sioux Falls zoo continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms.

Baya was a "playful and sweet" snow leopard, according to a news release from the Great Plains Zoo. Snow leopards are rated as "vulnerable" in the wild.

"Despite having such care and compassion and passion to make sure that these animals receive the best care we possibly can give, it's hard when we lose an animal," said zoo CEO Becky Dewitz. "And it's even harder when it is a sudden loss as what we saw with Baya and with her young age as only being 2.5-years."

The zoo has five other big cats: Three Amur tigers, another snow leopard, and an African leopard.

All are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are not on display as they heal, Dewitz said.

Only one of those big cats — Keesa the Amur tiger — has been tested for COVID-19 and she came back positive.

"The speed with which (the virus) has moved between these tigers and leopards really speaks to the insidious nature of this virus," veterinarian Louden Wright said in an earlier news release. "Usually, these species seem to recover well with supportive therapy and our animal care team is working hard to make sure that our cats follow that trend."

Testing big cats is not as simple as the nose swab used for humans, Dewitz says. Staff must immobilize the big cats, transfer them to the medical center, anesthetize them, and then examine them for the virus.

Baya has a pending COVID-19 test and a necropsy will further help determine her cause of death and any contributing factors.

She began coughing on Sunday, Oct. 3, and soon began showing signs of lethargy and a loss appetite, according to the news release.

Baya the snow leopard
Great Plains Zoo
Baya the snow leopard

Keesa tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and Baya began experiencing "a rapid decline of respiratory function" on Thursday.

The zoo's veterinarian consulted experts who instructed the zoo to give Baya antibiotics, steroids and other supportive care. The zoo also created a care team to provide 24-hour support.

But Baya died that evening.

Strut, a male snow leopard who lived near Baya, has minor symptoms and is stable. He is receiving prophylactic antibiotics and other supportive care.

The CDC says humans can pass COVID-19 to big cats and other animals, especially when they are in close contact. But the risk of animals spreading it to humans is low.

Great Plains staff that work with animals susceptible to transmission must wear protective masks, suits, and gloves, Dewitz said.

She said the zoo is not sure if an employee or visitor passed the virus to the animals. Only one staff member recently tested positive.

The zoo — which is outdoors — remains open. Dewitz said people should stay home if they are sick.

The zoo plans to vaccinate susceptible animals once it receives the Zoetis vaccine, which was recently approved to help prevent the virus in animals.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.