Discussing the Dangers of Petting Zoos:
As summer comes to a close, but before the upcoming holidays arrive, many families look to places to take their children, preferably outside in the cool autumn. The options often include locations like the aquarium, the museum, or even a petting zoo. Unfortunately, because of a large number of recent, high-profile, outbreaks, the news is littered with stories about the dangers of petting zoos. You are probably thinking, “I will make my kids wash their hands afterwards! They will be fine!” This optimism must be accompanied, however, by the knowledge that petting zoos carry more germs than most people believe and that coming into contact with these dangerous pathogens is easier than most people understand.
Petting zoos have been connected to some serious outbreaks of diseases, includeing E.coli, cryptosporidiosis, salmonella, ringworms, and more.
One very recent and unfortunate example was an outbreak that occurred at a North Carolina State Fair a few years ago. The outbreak ended up infecting more than 100 people, all of them confirmed cases of E.coli. The outbreak led to 15 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severe kidney complication in kids that is caused by E.coli. Many of these children were hospitalized for long periods of time and face with very life-threatening consequences.
In an even more recent outbreak, at a petting zoo at the San Diego County Fair, while only four children became infected, each of them faced terrible consequences. All of them were hospitalized, and sadly, a two-year-old died due to the food poisoning incident. That family is now being represented by the national food poisoning law firm of Ron Simon & Associates. Obviously, nothing can take back the senseless death of a toddler, but the lawsuit seeks to correct some of the all-to-common problems that seem to plague these outbreaks again and again.
The biggest and most obvious danger in a petting zoo environment is children come into direct contact with the animal, such as petting the animal, and subsequently stick their hand in their mouth. Parents and staff need to monitor child behavior carefully to make sure this dos not happen.. In addition, ALL petting zoos and animal exhibits should have dedicated well-advertised hand washing stations in every exhibit. These need running water, soap, towels, and hand sanitizer along with signs and staff encouraging every patron to fully avail themselves of them.
But unfortunately, the transfer of a dangerous pathogen is not as straight forward as it might appear. One of the biggest risks in a petting zoo is letting kids bring in human food and drink that can easily become contaminated. Petting zoo or animal exhibits should always be areas where human food and drink are prohibited. When food or drink is allowed, it routinely becomes contaminated (think simply setting a cup down to feed grain to a chick or to touch a sheep’s wool and later touching the bottom of the cup and then the straw). Contamination only takes microscopic amounts of these pathogens, and simply eating the food or drink thereafter causes the kids (and family members) to become infected.
Other problems include touching feces (which are what carries most of these pathogens) with the wheels of a stroller, the clothing of a toddler, pant legs, or shoes which are then touched by kids or parents and end up being ingested. These events provide a whole array of pathogens that are looking to travel home with the family.
Prudence might suggest avoiding petting zoos altogether, especially when a family has very small kids, typically 3 and younger. But when families decide that they are going to go to a petting zoo or animal exhibit, there are steps that might help reduce the chance of infection. First, never take human food or drinks into a pet/animal area. Next, after handling, feeding, or petting the animals, wash all hands as quickly as possible. This includes touching gates and fences. Run hands under warm water, actively with soap, for at least twenty seconds. If there are no sinks nearby, then use hand sanitizer until you find one. Remember, even without direct contact with an animal, hand washings is a must. Finally, change clothing carefully once at home, and wash or spray off wagons, carriages and stroller wheels.
After returning form such an event, be on the lookout for illness, usually gastrointestinal in nature, and tell your doctor or pediatrician if any illness follows a visit to a petting zoo or animal exhibit (onset can be a matter of a couple of hours, but can also takes days or event a couple of weeks). Early detection can lead to effective treatment and careful reporting of such illnesses helps prevent others from becoming ill.