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Why Jimiyu — and orangutans and big cats too — are getting COVID shots at the St. Louis Zoo

Jo Ellen Toler
St. Louis Zoo
Last week, 29-year-old chimpanzee Jimiyu became the St. Louis Zoo’s first animal resident to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai is the director of animal health at the St. Louis Zoo.
St. Louis Zoo
Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai is the director of animal health at the St. Louis Zoo.

Last week, 29-year-old chimpanzee Jimiyu became the St. Louis Zoo’s first resident to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine formulated specifically for animal species.

“The nice thing about a lot of our animals is they have a great relationship with their keepers, and so through a lot of positive reinforcement and training, we're able to administer a lot of our vaccines to animals voluntarily,” said the zoo’s director of animal health, Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai.

“There are some that are a little bit suspicious, that take a little bit longer to convince,” he added.

About 35 mammals at the zoo have received their first dose, including several other chimps, some orangutans, lemurs, foxes and most of the zoo’s big cats.

“Our great apes and our big cats were our highest-priority animals,” Chinnadurai said. “So far everyone has bounced back very well from the injection.”

The great apes and big cats were a high priority because they can contract the same viruses that plague people.

“There are a number of upper respiratory diseases that we could transmit to an ape or an ape could potentially transmit to a person,” Chinnadurai said. “It's a little less common for us to see this type of disease transmission go from a human to something like a big cat, but it's still definitely possible.”

The vaccine, developed by the animal health company Zoetis, has not received full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized it for experimental use on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai joins St. Louis on the Air

Chinnadurai joined Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss how the St. Louis Zoo has maintained a zero percent COVID-19 positivity rate since the pandemic’s start, what it’s been like to vaccinate zoo residents over the past week and what other animals might receive the Zeotis injection.

“We're still working on a very risk-based approach,” he said. “We may expand out from the great apes and the big cats to other mammals if more evidence comes to light that there are [coronavirus] cases in other other types of mammals. But I think it’d be very unlikely that we would expand beyond mammals.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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