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Coronavirus presents challenges for caretakers of the animal kingdom

At the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, staffers

At the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, staffers are working in split shifts to avoid potential human cross-contamination while caring for the facilities' 5,000 species, which include Java the sea lion, seen here with aquarium staffer Nicole MacDonald. Credit: Long Island Aquarium

The coronavirus outbreak continues, but puppies still need their vaccines, seals continue to strand themselves on beaches and Japanese snow monkeys are hungry for Monkey Chow biscuits.

Veterinarians, rescue workers and care specialists at the Long Island Aquarium are among the essential workers who continue to feed and treat creatures in need, even as some of those operations face looming cash flow problems.

Animal hospitals and veterinarian offices are open, but several are asking clients not to enter their building to protect employees. Dr. Diane Levitan at Peace Love Pets Veterinary Care in Commack said pet owners should first call to determine whether their animal is facing an emergency. The office is canceling non-urgent appointments except for animals abiding a vaccine schedule.

If the issue is urgent, her staff will meet patients at the curb, carry the animal in, clean it with an anti-bacterial wipe and speak with the owner via cellphone from the exam room. The practice will also begin offering veterinary telemedicine as early as this week.

Animals are unlikely to get coronavirus, Levitan said, but can pass it to humans if the pathogen is on their fur.

At the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, staffers are working in split shifts with alternating A and B teams to avoid potential human cross-contamination while caring for the facilities’ 5,000 species.

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“They don’t know what’s going on and we want to make sure it stays that way for them,” said Candyce Paparo, director of animal training. “We have to do everything we can to make sure their lives are enriched. We spend time with them and give them the attention we always have.”

Her team cares for the aquarium’s mammals, which include Japanese snow monkeys and Geoffroy’s marmosets, which loves zucchini.

Staff at the New York Marine Rescue Center, which is housed at the aquarium, have had an influx of marine animal stranding calls as many people are taking beach walks while home from the office. That crowd is sometimes bothering the animals, said rescue program director Maxine Montello.

She advises people to not approach or feed the animal. Not all seals on the beach are in distress and it’s best for those calling the rescue hotline at 631-369-9829 to take photos.

The nonprofit Animal Farm Petting Zoo of Manorville was slated to open April 4, although that is now delayed. Assistant director John Aleach said an increase in attendance in recent years — 30,000 admissions in 2015 that doubled to about 60,000 last year — has built reserves to weather several weeks of delay. About 95% of their budget is raised through ticket sales, he said.

Eight employees continue to clean and feed the hundreds of animals, which include monkeys, parrots, deer, llama, a camel and goats.

“At least we’re coming off a good, solid season,” Aleach said. “We have a budget put away for this type of stuff.”

Unlike veterinarian offices and the petting zoo, the for-profit aquarium, which is a break-even operation, does not have current income or a robust rainy day fund to keep it going. Executive director Bryan DeLuca said it costs the aquarium about $20,000 per week to care for the animals and that the company has laid off 90% of its staff of 240.

Both the aquarium and the marine rescue center are asking for donations through GoFundMe. It is unclear whether the federal government's $2 trillion rescue package will affect businesses like the aquarium, DeLuca said.

“Without any revenue coming, we’re in financial duress,” DeLuca said. “We have enough food and we have the right staff to take care of them [the animals], but our cash reserves are draining rapidly.”

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