The virus that causes COVID-19 in humans can also be carried by some animals, although there’s still a lot more to learn about zoonotic transmission and illness.
In the spring, when the pandemic first started, the Wisconsin DNR put a moratorium on rehabilitation services for some animals that could potentially be susceptible to coronavirus. The decision prohibited county-level humane societies, who typically care for sick and injured wildlife, from rehabilitating animals on that list.
Bats were the first to be put on the moratorium list — after early speculation, which has never been completely confirmed, posited that the coronavirus initially jumped from an Asian bat species to humans.
Amanda Kamps is a wildlife health conservation specialist with the Wisconsin DNR. She says the decision came as doctors and virologists were still attempting to understand the origins of the coronavirus.
But the decision to list bats wasn’t to protect humans — it was to protect the bats.
“We don’t know if our North American bat species are susceptible to the virus,” Kamps says. “There’s some research that has been done and there’s been some promising results that, as far as those trials go, did not show that they are susceptible.”
Since then, other animals have joined bats on the moratorium list. Animals in the cat family — including bobcat and lynx — and some carnivorous mammals — including otters, mink and weasels — were added for fear that the virus may jump from humans to the animals and spread through their wild populations.
That fear isn’t unfounded.
In Denmark last month, the government ordered a complete cull of the nation’s up to 17 million mink – out of a fear the mink could spread the virus back to humans. The move came after the virus infiltrated and began to spread like wildfire on Danish mink farms.
Wisconsin, the nation’s leading producer of mink pelts, has also had its own issues with infected mink. An outbreak at a mink farm in northern Taylor County killed more than 3,000 mink at last count in November.
But some are pushing back on the DNR’s moratorium. Erin Lemley, a Wildlife Veterinary Technician with the Dane County Humane Society, says that the DNR’s concerns of rampant spread through wildlife populations are unfounded. Wild animals, such as mink, rarely live in the same crowded spaces as they do in factory farm environments.
“I think that’s much less of a risk for animals in rehabilitation, especially if we’re taking precautions to avoid spreading the disease,” she says.
“If someone finds an injured bobcat, or otter, or bat — right now, they do not have any legal option for rehabilitation. The only thing we’re able to offer is humane euthanasia.”
Lemley and the humane society are currently pushing the DNR to reconsider its rehabilitation moratorium on all of the listed animals, arguing that they can safely, and successfully, rehabilitate them without transferring the virus.
She adds that, because of the lack of professional help, people will attempt to rehabilitate animals themselves, bringing unnecessary risk to both human and animal. In that situation, animals might not receive the quality of care that a professional could offer, and humans are also at risk: each species on the list can also carry rabies.
According to a press release from the Humane Society, most of the animals are currently not threatened or endangered. North American bats, however, have been ravaged in recent years by the effects of a fungal infection known as White-Nose Syndrome.
Due to the effects of the widespread illness, all four of Wisconsin’s native cave bat species are considered threatened. According to a 2019 report, the disease has a 75-98% mortality rate for hibernating bats.
Lemley agrees with the DNR that bats are one of the most likely species to be impacted by a virus, although there’s still no evidence of adverse effects to North American species.
If, however, an infected specimen was inadvertently reintroduced to a population, which often hibernate in large numbers and tight quarters, the likelihood of spread is high.
“However, because of white-nose syndrome, we already have quite strict restrictions on the housing of bats, and we could even tighten up those restrictions to make it so that most bats are housed individually if that is a concern,” Lemley says. “But because of white nose, we already handle bats much differently than other species.”
An added wrinkle in this debate is that animals don’t conform to human borders. Kamps, who works at a state level, says that the guidelines were crafted using input from other states and federal wildlife agencies. Any changes to the regulations would likely require some sort of cooperation from all levels of government.
“These conversations are happening across the U.S. and it involves other state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We’re part of a bigger conversation that’s happening — not just one specific to Wisconsin,” she says.
But, Kamps says that the DNR is open to revising the rules and Lemley confirms that the Department has started considering input from the Dane County Humane Society.
The Humane Society is also asking the DNR to remove its provisions barring rehabilitation of skunks, once a primary rabies vector. According to the organization, a skunk hasn’t been diagnosed with rabies in Wisconsin since before 2014.
Listeners who believe they have encountered an injured animal are still encouraged to call the Dane County Humane Society at (608) 838-0413.
(Photo: Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash)