Autopsy of Tallinn Zoo's asiatic lion uncovers COVID-19

Asiatic lion Juna, also known as Johnny.
Asiatic lion Juna, also known as Johnny. Source: Maaja Kitsing/Tallinna loomaaed

An autopsy conducted on Tallinn Zoo's male asiatic lion Juna, who was put to sleep on January 13 after renal failure, uncovered that the feline was carrying the coronavirus.

In 2020, Juna was diagnosed with renal failure, a frequent issue among older felines. Juna's condition worsened significantly in the first weeks of January and vets did not give him much chance of improving. Due to pain and prevention of further suffering, Juna was sent off to an ever-lasting sleep on Wednesday, January 13.

In addition to renal failure, the animal was also suffering from symptoms of upper respiratory tract disease and since it is known that felines are more susceptible to COVID-19, the lion's autopsy also consisted of a coronavirus test. As results came in, it became clear that the lion was infected with the coronavirus.

All employees and staff in contact with the lion were immediately sent for coronavirus and antibody testing, but all tests were negative, as of Wednesday.

Tallinn Zoo director Tiit Maran said there is no explanation for the lion's condition yet. "There are stricter hygiene and sanitary requirements when it comes to animals who could potentially be infected. The likeliness of a false positive is invalid, as three separate tests were taken. We are working on figuring out the source of infection."

Regardless of other animals not showing any symptoms of COVID-19, the zoo will begin spot testing other animals who could potentially be infected.

COVID-19 in animals has been registered in many zoos around the world, such as tigers and lions in New York's Bronx Zoo were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus in spring of 2020, pumas in South Africa, tigers in Zoo Knoxville and gorillas in California Zoo.

After an initial infection of the animal from a human carrier, the only noted cases of animals infecting people have been in mink farms, with Denmark setting off to cull 17 million minks in late-2020. There are no confirmed cases of domestic cats and other pets infecting people with COVID-19.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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