Zoo regroups following leopard's death, possibly from COVID


SIOUX FALLS (AP) – The Great Plains Zoo announced that one of their snow leopards, Baya, died of a respiratory illness, possibly COVID-19, last week.

In the days since Baya’s death, while felt deeply across the zoo’s community and overall conservation efforts, the animal’s passing has also raised questions on how zoos get these kinds of exotic animals, and whether the Sioux Falls zoo will gain another in the future.

The zoo is accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums along with 240 others across the world. These zoos are able to participate in programs that facilitate breeding among specific animal populations, including snow leopards. It can take months for transfers to happen, but when they do, it continues a long-standing mission of animal conservation.

The Great Plains Zoo has been involved in the breeding program “for a long time,” said Matt Eschenbrenner, the director of animal care and conservation.

“We do plan on remaining involved in snow leopard breeding,” Eschenbrenner said. “We have the space to bring in another female to continue being a part of this breeding program.”

“It’s not, ‘Hey, we’re down a snow leopard. Send us another one.’”

Before a zoo can get a new snow leopard, the institution must fill out an annual survey through a breeding and transfer program, part of the Species Survival Plan, which holistically examines if the facility can take another leopard and if all the good things happen, even have space for future cubs, Eschenbreener said.

Still, if a snow leopard dies during the program, the zoo can’t get another animal right away, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

“It’s not, ’Hey, we’re down a snow leopard. Send us another one. That’s not how it really works,” he said.

Right now, the survey is happening and Eschenbrenner says the zoo can be involved in the program for the upcoming year. However, it’s a months-long process, because of all the conversation that must be had to bring the animal from one zoo to another.

“I’m just not sure when a snow leopard will physically be here on grounds,” he said

The animals transferred to different zoos are part of the Species Survival Plan, which also helps build genetic diversity and biologically sound populations, according to their website.

Baya was specifically chosen for Strut, another snow leopard at the zoo, and a whole team was designed with specific guidance to help the two mate. Baya had been at the Great Plains Zoo since early 2021.

While the breeding and transfer program between the zoos is free, if babies are born, some will stay with their home zoo. Others will eventually be transferred elsewhere to help zoos with future breeding attempts, Eschenbrenner said.

The Sioux Falls zoo has had five cubs born during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eschenbrenner said.

“It’s not an easy thing. You don’t just put leopard and leopard together and cubs come out. It’s a huge process,” he said. “That’s a huge challenge in zoos, mimicking natural habitats, natural cycles in an unnatural location.”

Snow leopards, who are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are solitary creatures. In the wild, male and females mate during the first three months of the year, and then mothers raise the cubs alone.

There are between 3,920 and 6,390 snow leopards in the wild, according to the Snow Leopard Trust, a conservation website.

Breeding programs help boost the population while maintaining the goal of reintroducing the animals back into the wild in the future even if it’s three or four generations after, Eschenbrenner said.

As the zoo fills out the survey for the breeding program, officials want to make sure all their big cats are better after its potential COVID-19 outbreak.

“We can’t even think about bringing in another animal until we know everything has passed and our animals are healthy, 100%,” Eschenbrenner said.

Eschenbrenner said the zoo is still waiting for the results of Baya’s death and while they suspect it was COVID-19, it’s not known for sure.

One of the zoo’s Amur tigers tested also positive for the virus Oct. 6, the day before Baya died. Five other big cats have shown symptoms for the illness, including Strut.

Most of the cats have been on prophylactic antibiotics to treat their symptoms and have been improving greatly.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on everybody,” Eschenbrenner said. “But a lot of them at this point are monitoring symptoms and letting them ride this out a little bit is where we’re at.”

Eschenbrenner says the zoo plans to administer a COVID-19 vaccine to the animals once it’s fully approved.

TRENDING RECIPE VIDEOS

More In State News