How zoos persuade animals to get the coronavirus vaccine. (M&Ms and ice cream help.)

By Matt Blitz WashingtonPost

October 25, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. EDT

Just like 189 million Americans, Molly the tiger is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. This summer, 16-year-old Molly was one of several tigers and more than 50 animals at the Oakland Zoo that received at least one dose of a vaccine made by the New Jersey-based company Zoetis.

Unlike some humans, she didn’t hesitate when it came time to get her shot. A keeper gave a verbal command, and she slinked up to the enclosure’s fence, offering her hip for the jab. After a few warm-up pokes, a veterinarian injected the vaccine. Then, Molly got a treat: “For all of our large, exotic cats — that’s lions, tigers and mountain lions — they’re being positively reinforced with goat’s milk sprayed in their mouths,” Alex Herman, vice president of veterinary services at the Oakland Zoo in California, told me. “They really love it.”

The big cats aren’t the only zoo residents who’ve been trained to receive the vaccines. “The bears got ice cream and whipped cream. To get the chimp to stay still, we gave her marshmallows and M&M’s,” Herman says.


The Oakland Zoo was one of the first to vaccinate, but others are moving to do the same. The San Diego Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo all have started vaccinating some animals, while the Nashville Zoo and Maryland Zoo were, as of press time, waiting on vaccine shipments from Zoetis.

“Is covid-19 a risk to animals? Clearly, yes. Is it safe to vaccinate? Clearly, yes,” Herman says. “We are trying to minimize the spread through vaccination. There’s so much data that shows that’s the path forward for humans and animals.” Though the virus’s origins remain murky — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no evidence that wildlife is a source of infection for humans — it’s clear that all animals, mammals in particular, can get sick from it.

In early 2020, two sniffling dogs in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus. Later, it was discovered that farmed minks were dying of the virus, decimating Europe’s mink fur industry and forcing Denmark to cull 17 million minks.