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Zookeepers are wearing masks and gloves to keep the disease from spreading to the zoo's chimpanzees and orangutans.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON ZOO/MICHAEL DURHAM - Red Panda Mei Mei with keeper Sara Morgan at the Oregon Zoo. While the zoo is closed to the public for now, keepers are still on site taking precautions to care for the zoo's primates, which may be susceptible to COVID-19. As Americans take care to cover their coughs, wash their hands and keep their distance from others, zookeepers at the Oregon Zoo are taking extra steps to ensure that its population of primates and other animals don't contract the novel coronavirus.

The zoo closed to the public March 17, but zookeepers and veterinarians remain on-site to care for the zoo's 2,000-plus animals.

"For us, it's just another day," said Bob Lee, general curator at the Oregon Zoo. "The animals need the same care we always provide. We need to make sure they are not feeling the effects of what's going on around us."

Keepers make the rounds at the zoo every day, no matter the weather, or the threat of a global pandemic, Lee said.

"We're here, just like we're here on our birthdays or Christmas day or our anniversaries. These animals are like families to us."

The Oregon Zoo is home to everything from butterflies to Asian elephants. However, what is particularly concerning to keepers are the zoo's collection of great apes. The zoo is home to groups of chimpanzee, white-cheeked gibbons and orangutans. Inji, a 61-year-old Sumatran orangutan, is the oldest animal at the zoo and believed to be the oldest orangutan on Earth.

Like all primates, great apes have a lot in common with humans. Zoo veterinarian Kelly Flaminio said the chances of animals at the zoo coming down with COVID-19 aren't likely, but steps are being taken nonetheless.

"The CDC has not received reports of any wildlife or animals in human care becoming sick with COVID-19, but much is still unknown about the potential for transmission to great apes," she said.

Zookeepers who tend to the zoo's primates and great apes have been told to wear masks and gloves to keep from spreading the disease, Flaminio said. The zoo has also been limiting the number of zookeepers who interact with the zoo's great ape population.

"It's basically an extension of the 'social distancing' concept," she said.

It's unclear, exactly, where COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, came from. According to USA Today, early research indicates it likely came from bats and was transferred to an as-yet-unknown animal and, eventually, to people.

Lee said it's common practice at the zoo to wear masks and gloves around great apes when zookeepers aren't feeling well.

"If we have a sniffle, we wear a mask around many of the primates," Lee said. "Those are common strategies to take care of the animals that we use every day."

Outside of the animal enclosures, Lee said zookeepers and zoo staff are following Oregon Health Authority guidelines, such as practicing social distancing.

"Everybody here is so focused on their health, their family's health and taking care of the animals," Lee said. "We're making adjustments, so we can be sure to take care of our families and the animals."

Lee has worked at the zoo for 20 years. He often tells people he's the luckiest person in Portland.

"I say that because I get to come here every day," Lee said. We're working for an organization that's fighting to save the natural world. What can be better than that?"

The Oregon Zoo is closed through April 8.


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