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COVID symptoms among cats at Miller Park Zoo prompt partial closure

A female snow leopard at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Populations in the wild are declining and the species is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Scott Olson
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Photo shows a female snow leopard at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Symptoms of COVID-19 in big cats at Miller Park Zoo and a local surge in coronavirus cases have prompted officials to close the Kattehoefer Animal Building indefinitely.

Symptoms of COVID-19 in big cats at Miller Park Zoo and a local surge in coronavirus cases in the community have prompted officials to indefinitely close the zoo's Kattehoefer Animal Building.

Signs of COVID in the cats were first noted on Nov. 20, when one cat began "coughing and had a raspy respiration," according to a City of Bloomington news release on Wednesday.

Four cats have remained under veterinary care since then and, in particular, one snow leopard — Rilu — has COVID-related pneumonia.

The closure is a precautionary measure aimed at curbing any potential spread of the virus between humans and cats; zoo superintendent Jay Tetzloff described it as one measure among many others.

"We have taken precautions since the beginning — since March 2020," he said in an interview with WGLT. "This has been a long period of time that we have been taking these precautions and just like everyone, we're tired of it all, but we have to do our best to keep our animals as healthy as we can."

The building's closure to the public is a short-term solution to curb COVID's spread, but Tetzloff said staffers also are assessing the feasibility of vaccinating the cats.

Currently, none of the animals at Miller Park Zoo are vaccinated.

"It's something where we want to see how other zoos' animals have responded and, generally speaking, it's been positive," he said. "Now, it's more about logistics: Getting the vaccine is not as easy as we would like it to be."

Animals at the zoo that are susceptible to COVID include carnivores and primates.

Tetzloff emphasized that the remainder of the zoo remains open to the public. "We don't want to keep people away from the zoo, it's just that one part of it is not open right now," he said.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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