The Zerebko Zoo Tran, a travelling petting zoo, has suspended all operations after being linked by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to over a dozen E. coli illnesses in that state. Most of the 13 victims, ranging from age 2 to 68, attended an event with the Zerebko Zoo Tan travelling petting zoo on July 4th at an event in Nashwauk, and the others attended county fairs in Polk, Rice and Olmsted counties where they spent time at the Zerebko Zoo Tan petting zoo. Two of the thirteen did not attend these fairs or events, but are considered secondary infections who had contact with victims who had visited the Rice County fair. According to Dr. Carrie Klumb, a State epidemiologist for MDH, “It’s actually a really complicated situation that we have. This is a bacteria that cattle, goats and sheep can all naturally have and it doesn’t make those animals sick, but it makes us sick.”

The victims all presented for medical care with symptoms that included diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramping, and bloody stools. And as of this moment, at least two of the victims have suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal consequence of E. coli poisoning that can cause kidney failure. At least one of the victims remains hospitalized nearly a month after infection.

Zerebko Removes Animals from Exhibits and Cancels Appearance at Minnesota State Fair

State epidemiologist Dr. Klumb also confirmed that the Zerebko ownership, along with staff veterinarians, decided to remove the animals from all exhibits and will cancel a scheduled appearance at the Minnesota State Fair. Unfortunately, it remains unclear how the victims became ill. While it is known that animals often carry the deadly bacteria, it is not yet known if each victim handled certain animals, or if the bacteria was spread to railings, gates, hay or the food often provided to feed the animals. Visitors often touch these surfaces and products, and in the absence of careful hand-washing afterwards can transfer the bacteria to human food or to surfaces that can infect other people. This is especially true for children-as Dr. Klumb noted, “We’ve all seen kids licking railings before, so it can happen.”

This outbreak is one of a series of outbreaks in recent years, including at least one fatality, in which state and county fairs have been linked to E. coli and salmonella illnesses via their petting zoos. In recent years, many fair operators and travelling petting zoos have instituted new safety procedures, including warnings and hand-washing sinks. Some experts have even suggested preventing visitors from having physical contact with the animals, though this remains controversial.

The Zerebko travelling show boasts of exotic animals, pony rides, rock climbing, as well as a petting zoo. It is owned by Wally and Kathy Zerebko, and operates out of Bovey, Minnesota. The petting zoo allows close access to the animals by patrons, including children, and in fact in one photo on the website a young child is photoed kissing one of the animals.