The Assiniboine Park Zoo will bring in a vaccine mandate as of Monday as evidence mounts that people can transmit COVID-19 to animals.
Visitors 12 and older will need proof of full vaccination to gain admission. Assiniboine Park Conservancy staff and volunteers will need to have been fully vaccinated.
"We are seeing cases of animals in zoos in the U.S. acquiring COVID-19 and, sadly, in some of those cases, those animals have died," said Laura Cabak, communications manager.
Animals appear to get the same COVID-19 symptoms as humans and the virus can present as a respiratory infection, said Chris Enright, director of veterinary services and animal welfare at the zoo.
Current evidence suggests big cats, primates, bats, and weasels are the most susceptible to infection, he said.
Assiniboine is one of six zoos in Canada slated to receive a shipment of animal-specific COVID-19 vaccines from U.S. pharmaceutical company Zoetis, but it could be weeks or months before it arrives, Enright said.
"The concept of disease being shared between humans and other animals isn’t new," he said. "We already vaccinate a wide range of our animals for a number of vaccine-preventable diseases, and this is adding one more layer to that."
No animal at the zoo has tested positive for COVID-19, and staff do not suspect there are any active infections. The stricter policies are a pre-emptive measure, he said.
Proof of vaccination and masks are already mandatory for visitors of the Park Café, Tundra Grill, The Pavilion art galleries, and during events such as Zoo Lights and Boo at the Zoo, Cabak said.
The zoo mask policy remains unchanged, so visitors do not have to mask up while viewing outdoor exhibits. The zoo asks visitors to stay physically distant from each other and the animals, she said.
The new proof of vaccination policy will not affect people who use the park, although masks and vaccination status are still required to enter indoor spaces.
Multiple factors went into the decision, including similar policies at zoos in Toronto and Calgary and the City of Winnipeg’s decision to mandate vaccinations for front-line workers, Cabak said.
"Since COVID began, we’ve been evolving with all the changes," she said. "We felt making this move at this time, especially with news about new variants of concern, that it’s the right thing to do."
Typically, zoo memberships are non-refundable, but under the policy change, members who cannot provide proof of vaccination can request a refund, which will be on a pro-rated basis.