By Jennifer O’Connor
No one should underestimate the risks associated with petting zoos and hands-on animal displays, as the tragic death on Monday of a little boy in Maine shows.
The 21-month-old boy became sick with hemolytic uremic syndrome after contracting E. coli at a petting zoo.
Yes, those ag displays, tiger cub pens, pony rides and petting zoos can land you in the hospital or worse.
Multiple bacterial, viral and parasitic agents have been linked to contact with animals, including E. coli and salmonella bacteria and swine flu, West Nile and rabies viruses.
The most common victims of these outbreaks are youngsters. Hundreds of children around the country have become seriously ill after contracting E. coli at petting zoos.
Many have suffered catastrophic kidney failure, including some who required transplants.
E. coli outbreaks are as common as cotton candy and vary only in the number of people infected. A toddler was hospitalized with life-threatening kidney failure—and received dialysis and multiple blood transfusions—after she contracted E. coli at a Wisconsin fair in 2010.
North Carolina health officials documented 43 confirmed cases of E. coli and suspected at least 100 more in people who had visited a petting zoo at the 2004 state fair.
Infection can spread through direct contact with animals or simply by touching the surroundings near an animal exhibit. Hand sanitizer does nothing to prevent the spread of E. coli by inhalation, and the bacteria has been linked to sippy cups, pacifiers and even thumb-sucking.
E. coli and swine flu aren’t the only pathogens lurking at fairs and zoos. In 2010, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had to assess some 70 children suspected of having had contact with a rabid calf at a petting zoo.
The children’s petting zoo at the Toledo Zoo was closed indefinitely in 2005 after three animals tested positive for campylobacter, an infectious type of bacteria that causes gastrointestinal illness. A year earlier, a bird and a horse in the Phoenix Zoo’s petting area died of West Nile disease, even though the horse had been vaccinated.
These outbreaks are neither rare nor isolated, and safety guidelines appear to be making little difference. In a case dating back to the 1990s, at least 50 people were stricken with a particularly virulent type of salmonella after visiting a petting area at the Denver Zoo. Eight of the victims had to be hospitalized. A 5-year-old Michigan boy was hospitalized after becoming ill with a salmonella infection after visiting a petting zoo on a school field trip in 1999.
Seven other children also became infected. That same year, as many as 650 people were believed to have been exposed to rabies after having had contact with a bear cub at an Iowa petting zoo. Several had to undergo rabies vaccinations. The bear cub later died of the disease.
Is it any wonder that animals who are crammed into sweltering transport trucks and holding pens and hauled around the country are in ill health? Hiring a veterinarian to accompany them would reduce profits, so sick or injured animals often go untreated.
It’s impossible to know how many animals suffer and die on the fair circuit because exhibitors’ convoys are constantly on the move, and for the most part no one is watching. With fewer than 100 federal inspectors covering the country, it’s simply not possible to monitor exhibitors with any regularity.
But you can still enjoy a local fair without putting your children’s health at risk or supporting cruelty to animals. Simply walk on by the petting zoo, pony rides and any other displays that use animals as props.