Snow Leopard dies after contracting COVID-19, says Illinois Zoo

An 11-year-old snow leopard who was one of five big cats that tested positive for COVID-19 at an Illinois zoo last month has died of complications from the virus, the zoo said.

Rilu, whose image was once projected on New York City’s iconic Empire State Building to highlight the need to protect endangered animals, died after “battling COVID-induced pneumonia,” Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington announced Thursday.

The spotted mountain cat, which has an estimated population of a few thousand according to the extinction tracking group International Union for Conservation of Nature, had tested positive for the virus on December 3rd. This test result came two weeks after the cat, along with three other snow leopards and a Sumatran tiger, first showed symptoms of the virus, the zoo had said.

The four other cats that tested positive for the virus continue to show mostly minor symptoms, a zoo representative told HuffPost Sunday.

“Rilu’s personality and beauty will be missed by guests and staff, but he will not be forgotten,” the zoo said in an Instagram post.

In captivity, snow leopards have been known to live as long as 22 years, according to the animal protection group Snow Leopard Trust.

Wildlife photographer Joel Sartore, whose larger-than-life image of Rilu was displayed on the 102-story New York building in 2015, shared a video of the big cat on his Instagram page Friday while urging people to get vaccinated against the virus.

“Snow leopards are proving to be extremely susceptible to the disease and are often fatal. If you have not been vaccinated and boosted yet, do so. It is more than just human life that is at stake,” he wrote.

As Sartore noted, Rilu, who produced seven live offspring while at the zoo, is not the first known snow leopard to die after contracting the virus.

Three other snow leopards died of complications from COVID-19 at a zoo in Nebraska in November. Their deaths also came about a month after they were tested positive for the virus. Two Sumatran tigers also tested positive for the virus at the zoo, but are said to have recovered completely.

It is possible for humans to infect cats with coronavirus and for cats to spread it to other felines, although it is less likely that they can spread the virus to humans, according to Cornell Feline Health Center.

The center and federal health officials recommends that cat keepers with the diagnosis COVID-19 quarantine and leave the care of their cats to another or avoid contact with the cats as much as possible.

The Miller Park Zoo’s animal shelter, where the snow leopards were kept, had been closed for two weeks before the cats tested positive for the virus, and “every problem has been isolated,” the zoo said last month.

The building was closed again last week due to an increase in COVID-19 cases throughout central Illinois, a park official told the local station WMBD.

The zoo requires all guests to wear masks, for the sake of animal safety, when entering a building that houses an animal habitat, according to the zoo’s website.

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