7th big cat dies at Texas animal refuge from virus

WYLIE, Texas — A tiger described as the “soul” of a North Texas animal sanctuary became the seventh big cat to die from an outbreak of a fatal virus, a spokeswoman for the refuge said Monday.

Tacoma, who was 13 years old and weighed in excess of 400 pounds, died Sunday night at In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Education Center in the Dallas suburb of Wylie. Spokeswoman Lisa Williams said Tacoma was the sixth tiger killed by canine distemper. A lioness also has died.

More than a dozen other big cats are still suffering from the virus. Experts believe raccoons likely started the outbreak by crawling around the large outdoor cages that house more than 50 lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats and other cats.

An emotional Williams said the death of Tacoma is difficult because he had been with the sanctuary for more than a dozen years and had bonded with founder Vicky Keahey and other workers. He was recovering from surgery to both hips in March when the outbreak of the virus was discovered in May.

“This is a particularly devastating loss,” Williams said.

Tacoma, a Siberian, was one of six brothers at the sanctuary who had the same father. Distemper now has killed four of them.

Claire Sharp, an assistant professor of clinical sciences at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, has previously said researchers discovered about 30 years ago that the virus, which can afflict many different species, could infect big cats. Outbreaks have included one in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in 1994 that killed a third of its 3,000 lions.

Although there are vaccines for dogs and ferrets, studies have shown the dog vaccine isn’t safe for big cats and there’s no evidence of the ferret vaccine being effective in the cats, Sharp said. Williams said that after the outbreak was discovered at her refuge, the ferret vaccine was given to animals that weren’t showing symptoms, though five of the six that died were among those vaccinated.

Workers at the Texas refuge have been collecting information to help scientists learn more about the virus while trying to nurse ill animals back to health. The refuge remains open, and experts say the virus poses no threat to humans.

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