Captive Gorillas Have Caught Coronavirus at a Zoo

Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are coughing, officials said, after an asymptomatic staff member is believed to have infected the animals.
​A gorilla at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Image: Nathan Rupert

Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first time that natural transmission of the coronavirus has been detected in great apes (other than humans, of course).

Two of the park’s western lowland gorillas started coughing last Wednesday, sparking concern among staff that they might be presenting symptoms of the infection. Preliminary tests of the apes’ feces, conducted by the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System (CA HFS), came back positive for coronavirus on Friday. The diagnosis was confirmed by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) on Monday.


“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, in a statement. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”

Not all of the eight members in the gorilla troop have tested positive, but the park staff presumes that they have all been exposed given that these family groups live in close contact, both in the wild and in captivity. 

San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been closed to the public for over a month, and visitors are not permitted to get anywhere near the gorillas when it’s open. The gorillas likely caught COVID-19 from an asymptomatic staff member despite requirements that staff wear PPE while in proximity of the troop. 

Though this is the first confirmed coronavirus case in a non-human great ape, many other species have caught COVID-19, including domestic cats and dogs. Perhaps the most tragic outcome of COVID-19 transmission in animals has occurred on mink farms over the past several months. Farmed mink, raised for their fur, can catch the virus from humans and can also transmit it back, which is a serious public health risk. For this reason, 17 million mink were culled in Denmark in November.

Several big cats have also tested positive for coronavirus, including tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo and snow leopards at Louisville Zoo in Kentucky. The big cats were also likely infected by an asymptomatic staff member, and they all recovered.