Considerations for Resuming Animal Encounters

An alpaca nibbles out of a person's hand as it sticks its head over a fence.

The zoo and aquarium community is starting to awaken from the COVID-19 pandemic, though the degree to which facilities may resume ‘normal’ business activities is still largely dictated by state and local guidelines to protect the public.

As more facilities reopen, questions are being generated about resumption of animal contact programs.  If your facility is thinking about reinstating animal contact programs, and has permission to do so, a risk assessment should be performed prior to any decision-making.

Risk assessments should be undertaken with input from your veterinary team, animal care professionals, and administration with pertinent local public health participation. Consider the following:

  • SARS CoV-2 is highly human host adapted. Precautions should always put human health first.  Think about how potential patron-patron, or employee-patron interaction can follow recommended guidelines for distancing, PPE, etc.
  • What, if anything, is known about susceptibility of the species involved in the encounter?
    • To date, SARS-CoV-2 infection has been observed in several big cat species, gorillas, and Asian small-clawed otters in zoological facilities, but it is likely a mixed bag of susceptibility for other species that may be used in direct contact programs.
    • As of this writing, the only species confirmed to have transmitted the virus back to humans is mink, with cases occurring in mink farming operations.
  • Where will the encounter occur?
    • Is the encounter indoors? What type of air circulation is present in the area?
    • Outdoors, where presumably wind currents disperse virus?
  • What is the nature of the encounter?
    • Petting an animal?
    • Feeding an animal?
    • Allowing a patron to hold an animal with greater ‘contact’ time?
  • What biosecurity measures would be put in place for guests?
    • Are you planning on providing guests with appropriate PPE? Hand sanitizer?
    • Does the space allow for proper social distancing between guests?
    • Will any sort of health/liability forms or temperature checks be required of patrons prior to the encounter?
    • Will you require proof of vaccination before allowing the encounter?
  • What is the current infection rate in the community?
  • Are employees with this direct public contact vaccinated?

This is merely a list of considerations.  Your team and public health experts will likely come up with other questions to be explored in a thorough risk assessment to resume animal contact opportunities.


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