Caring for the diverse population of exotic animals at the Sacramento Zoo is a big challenge.
“It’s a hugely broad field that really does require a lot of teamwork,” said Dr. Ray Wack. “No one person can know everything there is to know about every species on earth.”
The Zoo veterinary staff relies on the expertise of about 225 board certified specialists in zoo animals across the country.
But in some respects, caring for zoo animals is much like caring for any animal – including humans. In fact, humans share a lot of similarities with their primate kin, including susceptibility to certain ailments, including flu.
“Many species of primates are susceptible to the influenza virus, or what we commonly call flu,” said Dr. Ray Wack, veterinary director at the Sacramento Zoo. “Especially our great apes, our chimpanzees and orangutans are susceptible to the flu as well.”
Oddly, giant anteaters also are susceptible to flu because they have similar cell receptors that allow the virus to attach. For this reason, zoo employees are required to get flu shots, Wack said.
“We encourage visitors as well to get flu shots,” he added.
While flu viruses don’t discriminate between humans and some other primates, there are differences.
“It can be harder on primates,” Wack said. “Different great apes can have varying degrees of severity,” he said, comparing it to the way influenza can be more dangerous to babies and the elderly.
Another difference between illness in humans and wildlife is they tend to be better at hiding infirmities -- it doesn't pay to let your predators know when you're under the weather. Veterinarians work closely with zookeepers, who know the personalities of their animal charges and see them daily, so they can monitor for subtle behavior changes that might signal illness.
Despite precautions, zoo primates occasionally come down with the flu, Wack said. When they do, they are treated much like humans, with rest, fluids and anti-inflammatory medications.
Unlike humans, binge-watching Game of Thrones and the like is not part of their recovery. Instead, ailing zoo animals get to relax behind the scenes with extra treats and TLC from their keepers.
“I’m not sure how many of them really like Game of Thrones,” Wack joked.