Cincinnati Zoo uses clickers, snacks to train animals for COVID-19 vaccination

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Posted at 1:19 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 01:19:27-04

How do you vaccinate a gorilla against COVID-19? Carefully.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is using clicker training and snack bribes to teach its great apes, big cats and many other mammals to hold still while they get the shot later this year.

“We’re working really hard,” said veterinarian Mark Campbell. “We have been for the last couple months.”

Zoo leaders hope to receive doses of the vaccine from Zoetis, a pharmaceutical company that makes medicines specifically for pets and livestock, near the end of the summer.

In the meantime, they’re preparing animals for what veterinarians call “voluntary vaccination,” a vaccination process that doesn’t involve anesthetizing an animal or restraining it while it receives a shot.

Instead, the voluntary vaccination training process involves teaching an animal to enter a specific enclosure or assume a specific position — for silverback gorillas, it’s turning around and pointing their rump in their keepers’ direction — that allows a veterinarian to quickly administer the shot.

Zoo videos show keepers using a clicker to prompt a gorilla to turn around and using fresh fruit to keep an orangutan happy while it receives a shot in its upper arm.

It’s a good start. Campbell and zoo spokesperson Michelle Curley said they’re pleased with their progress but are still working on the biggest challenge: The second dose.

“It’s a two-dose vaccination, so it’s especially tricky to get them to accept another shot three weeks after they have received the first one,” Curley said. “For annual vaccinations, they have a year to forget about the sting!”

Animals known to have contracted COVID-19 include big cats, gorillas, mink and pet cats and dogs.