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Miller Park leopard dies of COVID-induced pneumonia

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A Miller Park Zoo snow leopard back from a trip to Omaha reacts Thursday in Bloomington. The animal and a littermate were treated at a Nebraska zoo for a leg deformity.  

The U.S. is urging that everyone 12 and older get a COVID-19 booster as soon as they're eligible, to help fight back the hugely contagious omicron mutant that's ripping through the country.

BLOOMINGTON — The Miller Park Zoo snow leopard that played a major role in the North American Species Survival plan has died of COVID-induced pneumonia.

Rilu, who has been with the zoo since 2011, died Wednesday after struggling for weeks after contracting COVID-19, Superintendent Jay Tetzloff told The Pantagraph on Thursday. The 11-year-old fathered seven cubs as part of a plan to repopulate the species.

“I really want to focus on his legacy,” Tetzloff said, adding that Rilu was captured on film in Joel Sartore’s project The Photo Ark. The snow leopard’s photo has also appeared on the side of the Empire State Building in New York. “He’ll be teaching and showing people the beauty that is a snow leopard forever.”

Snow leopard

Rilu the snow leopard is shown. 

The death came shortly after the zoo announced it would close the Katthoefer Animal Building for a second time since five big cats, including Rilu, tested positive for COVID-19 in late November. The decision to close the building again was made after Rilu began struggling with COVID-induced pneumonia last week and amid a surge in coronavirus cases in McLean County.

As symptoms worsened, Rilu was treated with numerous types of medications including steroids. A blood transfusion was overnight shipped earlier this week from a snow leopard at another facility.

Tetzloff said he is aware of only five big cats that have died from COVID-19, all of which have been snow leopards. Species susceptible to the virus include all big cats, otters and primates, which have tested positive at other zoos.

“If snow leopards are a species that struggle with certain diseases, that’s definitely a concern,” he said.

Rilu was sent to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine for necropsy as part of the snow leopard Species Survival Plan protocol, Tetzloff said. A necropsy is an autopsy for animals. Other measures are being taken with the Omaha Zoo to preserve reproductive organs for potential future artificial insemination.

On Wednesday, Tetzloff said, the zoo will begin vaccinating susceptible species once shots are available through the manufacturer Zoetis. Vaccines became difficult to obtain after the zoo approved them for their animals.

Rilu was brought to Miller Park Zoo in 2011 from Oklahoma City Zoo as part of the snow leopard Species Survival Plan, which Tetzloff manages for North America. The plan sustains the snow leopard population in North America, which was taken off the endangered species list in 2017. They are now considered vulnerable species, said Tetzloff.

As of July there were 138 snow leopards in North America in the breeding program Tetzloff said. There are between 4,000 and 7,000 snow leopards living in the wild in Central Asia.

Rilu and his mate, Hima, had two cubs at the zoo in 2020 named Sage and Shree. Hima and the two cubs remain housed at the zoo and are still under veterinary treatment after contracting the virus along with the zoo’s Sumatran tiger.

The Katthoefer Animal Building is closed to visitors indefinitely to limit potential spread of COVID-19 from humans to animals.

Visitors are required to wear masks while inside zoo buildings.

Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.

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