Ban petting zoos? E. coli outbreak raises questions

An outbreak of E. coli cases linked to a North Carolina fair is raising questions about the safety of petting zoos and animal exhibits.

So far, Cleveland County Health Director Dorothea Wyant said 38 cases, including the death of a 2-year-old boy, have been linked to the Cleveland County Fair. Of the 16 adults and 22 children involved, eight were hospitalized.

Many had stopped by to see the sheep, goats and pigs used for livestock competitions and in the “huge” petting zoo, Wyant said. E. coli bacteria is often found in animal feces.


Symptoms of infection include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and can lead to kidney failure and more.

Wyant said public health authorities haven’t pinpointed the exact cause of the North Carolina outbreak but said “we can pretty much say it’s not the food.”

“We’re thinking that it’s probably the animals at this point; we just can’t pinpoint which animal,” she said. “We had camel rides, pony rides, exotic animal exhibits, cow-milking, kangaroos, a six-legged goat -- all kinds of stuff.”

Some experts used the outbreak to discuss the dangers of animal exhibits.

“Ban petting zoos?” wrote Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler in an email. “I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth over such an un-American suggestion.”

But such set-ups have been responsible for a rash of illnesses in recent years, including an outbreak at a North Carolina fair in 2004 that resulted in 187 illnesses, Marler said.

The CDC and other experts urge petting-zoo visitors to wash their hands after touching animals, and avoid taking food, drinks or pacifiers into the area and more.

“With fairs and festival season underway, we would be remiss not to remind people of the importance of hand-washing as a way to prevent the spread of this and other illnesses,” said Laura Gerald, North Carolina’s health director.

In June, the Atlanta City Council banned petting zoos in city parks “for the safety of the public and park property,” according to spokesman Dexter Chambers.

A decade ago, after an E. coli outbreak, Pennsylvania legislators ordered zoos and other animal exhibits to provide hand-washing facilities and to post information about the dozens of so-called zoonotic diseases connected to contact with animals.

Parents should also stay vigilant, according to a blog post last month from Dr. Scott Weese with the Ontario Veterinary College’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses in Canada.

“Petting zoos can be fun and educational and we don’t want to over-react and assume they are all inherently dangerous,” Weese wrote. “There’s always some degree of risk of infectious disease exposure, and the key is making sure petting zoos are run optimally to reduce, as much as possible, the risk to the public.”


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