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Pathogens often have a limited host range, but some can opportunistically jump to new species. Anthropogenic activities that mix reservoir species with novel, hence susceptible, species can provide opportunities for pathogens to spread beyond their normal host range. Furthermore, rapid evolution can produce new pathogens by mechanisms such as genetic recombination. Zoos unintentionally provide pathogens with a high diversity of species from different continents and habitats assembled within a confined space. Institutions alert to the problem of pathogen spread to unexpected hosts can monitor the emergence of pathogens and take preventative measures. However, asymptomatic infections can result in the causative pathogens remaining undetected in their reservoir host. Furthermore, pathogen spread to unexpected hosts may remain undiagnosed if the outcome of infection is limited, as in the case of compromised fertility, or if more severe outcomes are restricted to less charismatic species that prompt only limited investigation. We illustrate this problem here with a recombinant zebra herpesvirus infecting charismatic species including zoo polar bears over at least four years. The virus may cause fatal encephalitis and infects at least five mammalian orders, apparently without requiring direct contact with infected animals.