Posted on: April 30, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Kaitlyn Davies, JRN 111 Student

On your walk around campus or the C building, you may have come across a rather large tortoise named Sheldon. Sheldon, an African Spurred Tortoise, has been under the Bio Lab’s care for quite some time, but unfortunately, that time has come to an end.

In one of the indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on animals, Sheldon has retired to Florida.

Coronavirus may be a major problem for people, but it originally came from animals. Directly or indirectly, the pandemic has affected mother nature’s prized children in many different ways. Some of the effects are still unknown, even by experts.

“I haven’t gotten a lot of information about [COVID’s effects on] animals. It’s not really a thing that gets talked about,” says Moraine biology and microbiology professor Nicholas Hackett.

Sheldon, Moraine’s African Spurred Tortoise, has retired to Florida.

Because of social media, the effects on zoos have been more public. Many were shut down; some experienced “baby booms”; and others allowed the animal residents to wander around for enrichment purposes.

Meanwhile, on Moraine’s campus, the effects were less direct. Sheldon the tortoise could no longer be cared for, as funding had decreased and hired help had waned—not to mention the fact that a school lab really doesn’t suit the needs of an exotic animal.

“From the beginning, he was just a lot of work from his condition, his size. It took me months to get him to eat hay,” Head Bio Lab Technician Jen Padilla explains.

Moraine could not keep paying for Sheldon’s vet visits. The school has to save as much money as possible, just in case the pandemic lasts longer than anticipated.

Typically, Padilla had students working under her, as taking care of animals, preparing labs and attending meetings is a hefty job for one person. However, the pandemic forced the school to terminate all the help she had. So now she works as the sole caretaker of several plants, some fish (tropical/saltwater and feeder goldfish), two ball pythons, a southern box turtle, millipedes, isopods, and worms for compost.

As an animal lover, Padilla feels brokenhearted about the effects of the pandemic on the creatures she cares for.

“I have not been able to go inside a vet since March,” she said. “I just sit in the car, and sometimes cry, when it’s something serious. Vet technicians are so overwhelmed. It’s been hard emotionally and financially.”

Not everyone has reptiles, insects, or fish to take care of, as a majority of the population’s pets are mammals. So an important question is raised: Can your furry companion get Coronavirus?

Graphic by Sarah Kauffman

The answer is yes. The virus does not exclusively affect humans. In fact, according to the USDA’s research, dogs and cats have the most documented cases of COVID-19. The World Organization for Animal Health reports similar findings, with cases found in minks, ferrets, big cats and gorillas as well.

“Animals can get and transmit coronavirus,” Moraine biology and zoology professor Gretchen Bernard explains. “Although the origins of the virus are still unknown, many scientists suspect that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it started in animals and then ‘jumped’ to humans.”

She cited Swine flu, Avian flu, Ebola and HIV as examples.

“As the world human population continues to grow exponentially, we venture into remaining natural areas and animal habitats more frequently, bringing us in contact with previously unknown pathogens,” Bernard said. “Overcrowding and lack of sanitation in animal farming is also a risk factor.”

San Diego Zoo has given experimental COVID-19 vaccines to its gorillas, and even some of its big cats. Endangered animals contracting Coronavirus contributed heavily to the shutdown of zoos.

“It’s one of the scary things about an infection like this, or a disease like COVID: there’s only so much we can do to control it,” says Hackett. “Especially respiratory diseases have this potential to just spread exponentially through populations. It’s always a threat.”

Because apes have similar evolutionary traits with humans, they can catch illnesses easily.

“Since many apes are critically endangered, protecting them is essential,” says Bernard. “Wild populations need to be protected as well – primarily by keeping people away from them.”

Since many apes are critically endangered, protecting them is essential. Wild populations need to be protected as well – primarily by keeping people away from them.”

Gretchen Bernard, professor of biology and zoology

Thankfully, most zoos have now opened their doors once again due to the increase of vaccinations and decrease of COVID cases. And one good indirect thing came out of the pandemic for animals: baby booms.

“Despite putting a hold on breeding, we had quite a few babies and quite a few significant births here at the zoo,” Houston Zoo General Curator Kevin Hodge said on NPR. “It surprised us.”

You may have also seen some viral videos going around of zoo animals meeting other animals. Since animals had no one but their keepers, zoos had to get creative with how to keep enrichment up. The solution? Letting them meet each other or walk around and exercise with all that empty park space. Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium even got into the act.

Animals in some zoos and aquariums, including Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, are having playdates while the facilities are shutdown to visitors due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, even the most creative solution doesn’t always pan out. Sheldon is a prime example. With limited funding, Padilla found that no matter how hard she tried, Moraine just wasn’t a good fit for him.

“We had a really bad winter. He was doing a lot of vocalizing. He was making these grunts and screams. He couldn’t pass a bowel movement. It couldn’t come out. I’m not sure if it was him not having enough energy, or if it was too dry,” she said.

She tried to get help from veterinarians, but they didn’t know what to do.

“He needs the heat, he needs the sun,” she said. “When we realized it wasn’t a possibility to keep him healthy here anymore, I started looking for shelter.”

Sheldon has a metabolic bone disorder called shell pyramiding. Poor environment, an unhealthy diet, and bad lighting cause this. Padilla says previous owners had fed him a carnivorous diet even though he is an herbivore, most likely causing the disorder.

With research, she found a woman in Florida whose boyfriend has experience with animals, reptiles in particular. He owns both a monitor and a lizard.

Unfortunately, Moraine could not afford to provide funds for the trip, so a group of faculty members surprised Padilla by raising the money. Biology professor Sandra Gibbons posted to the faculty Facebook page, explaining the situation.

“I didn’t even ask. It was the sweetest thing anyone had ever done,” Padilla recalled. “Animals should be treated like people, especially because they don’t have a say. They just want to be alive. I’m glad that newer generations are seeing animals as something more than just alive.”

With the money raised, Padilla was able to drive down and give Sheldon a much better place to live. It was hard for her to let him go, but she wishes Sheldon a very happy retirement. The couple who took him in still send her pictures.

“I’ve never seen enclosures for reptiles that beautiful,” she said.

COVID symptoms to watch for in your furry friends, according to the CDC:
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Ocular discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea