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How to vaccinate a lion – it’s easy!

7 June 2005

How to vaccinate a lion – it’s easy!

Bribing your cat to swallow medicine may seem like a difficult task, but for Wellington Zoo’s animal conditioning and veterinary teams, vaccinating lion cubs Zulu and Malik is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Born at Auckland Zoo, Zulu and Malik arrived in Wellington in September last year and the time has now come for their second round of vaccinations, due to happen in the next few weeks.

The cubs are to be vaccinated against the same diseases that affect domestic cats. The standard vaccine offers protection against viruses such as feline panleucopaenie, feline rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus.

The Zoo’s Life Sciences and Veterinarian Manager, Doctor Katja Geschke, says: “We use a vaccine with a dead virus instead of a live-attenuated vaccine, which decreases the risks for our animals. Wild animals are more sensitive to vaccines than domestic animals. African wild dogs, for example, can get clinical distemper from a vaccine developed for domestic dogs. We therefore only use dead vaccines for our wild animals.”

Ongoing daily medical conditioning is crucial to the successful vaccination of these animals. This involves a routine in which operant conditioning is used to observe the lion’s body to decipher its health status.

Zoo Animal Conditioner and Trainer Gerry Whitehouse-Tedd says: “We start with basic body inspection. We train the animal to stay still in a position so that we can observe it to make sure it is healthy. On our command, the animal puts its paws up against the wall so we can inspect its underside and see underneath the paws to check there are no cuts.”

Administering vaccines and other injections has become a stress-free operation since animal conditioning began at the Zoo in 2003. Prior to this, all vaccines were administered using a blowpipe and vaccination dart.

“This was quite a difficult procedure because it was painful - and other animals yet to be vaccinated were stressed because they knew what was coming! It also meant that if the dart fell out, the animal would sometimes chew the dart which could cause injury,” says Katja.

“Being able to get up close to the animal means we can administer a relatively painless injection into the leg muscle. The lions don’t even flinch now - it’s so much easier than before.”

One of the most important aspects of medical conditioning involves training the animal to stand on scales to be weighed as this is considered an important health indicator which can help to illustrate whether the animal is unwell.

While the lions are the next animals to be vaccinated, conditioning also takes place with other mammals including the 5-metre tall giraffes and the Zoo’s birds.


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