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The Conversation

2 lions test positive for coronavirus at Honolulu Zoo, 13-year-old Ekundu dies

Lion honolulu zoo.jpg
Honolulu Zoo
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Lions at the Honolulu Zoo

The Honolulu Zoo's only male lion Ekundu, who also had an underlying health condition, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and died last week, the zoo announced. The zoo said it has implemented strict safety measures and is working to secure vaccinations for the animals.

When Ekundu and his mate Moxy started showing signs of illness on Oct. 4, zoo officials took samples from both lions to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. The tests came back positive after Ekundu's death.

"With our lion, he also had an underlying medical condition that we've been managing for over five years. So he became epileptic. We're not sure the cause of that. We're hoping that his necropsy will shed some light on the real cause of his death and the role SARS-CoV-2 played in his passing," Honolulu Zoo Director Linda Santos said.

Ekundu died on Oct. 11, one week after he started showing signs of respiratory illness.

Lions cuddling Ekundu and Moxy Honolulu Zoo
Catherine Cruz
Ekundu and Moxy resting at the Honolulu Zoo

"While most SARS-CoV-2 infections in large non-domestic cats have been mild illnesses that respond well to supportive care, Ekundu was unfortunately one of the newer cases where COVID seems to be linked to severe pneumonia and tragic loss of life in these species," zoo veterinarian Jill Yoshicedo said.

Moxy appears to be stable and on track to a full recovery, the zoo said last week.

"I'm sure she knows that he's expired because she lives in the same cat house. We did have them separated, but they still had visual and audio contact with each other before he expired," Santos told HPR's The Conversation.

Ekundu was born on Nov. 2, 2007, and came to the Honolulu Zoo in 2010. Along with Moxy, they raised three lion cubs — they've since been transferred to other zoos.

The zoo director, Santos, remembers when Ekundu first arrived in Honolulu.

"Ekundu is a very special cat. When he arrived, I got him off the truck with the forklift, and moved his crate over to the lion house, so we could let him out of his shipping crate into the facility there. So I remember when he was very young, when he first came in," she said.

The source of infection remains unknown. Staff in close contact were vaccinated and tested negative for COVID-19, the zoo said in a news release.

"In zoos, mainly it's been an asymptomatic keeper — someone who hasn't shown signs despite wearing all the proper PPE. It seems that somehow there's been spread of COVID amongst different types of cats in zoos," Santos said.

The zoo is trying to secure an experimental coronavirus vaccine for its animals, Santos said. Other zoos around the country have received the vaccine and begun vaccinating their animals.

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Honolulu Zoo
Ekundu, an African lion, at the Honolulu Zoo

"I believe they have to get approval from USDA to bring it in. We have to provide a list of animals that we plan to vaccinate. So we're in the queue waiting to hear back," Santos said. "I think there's been over 70-something zoos now that have received the vaccine for animals. And, you know, it's supply and demand. It's one of those situations where you're on a list and you're waiting to get the vaccine."

Santos said high-risk animals like non-human primates, cats, and hunting dogs will be prioritized for vaccination.

African lions typically live up to 15-25 years in captivity, the zoo said.

This interview with Honolulu Zoo Director Linda Santos aired on The Conversation on Oct. 20, 2021.

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