Back to Nature (Published on - June 8, 2005)
Petting zoos: common sense, balance and precaution
Photo by Rick Tremmel
Snoopy, 7, who was rescued by his owners Brenda and Dale (Absolute Best Pony’s and Friends of Animals), enjoys a day out relaxing in the sun and enjoying corn on the cob.
At the foot of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., my family owned a little more than an acre of gentle rolling, green valley land which nurtured my brother and I, a mess of chickens, an occasional goat, a pack of my father’s purebred Labrador retrievers (golden and black), a basement lined with more than 200 cages of canaries and parakeets, and then of course there was always a small dog on my mother’s lap.

We grew up surrounded by animals.

We didn’t have anything but soap and hot water, but I just don’t remember anyone becoming ill from cleaning out a stall.

Have things changed?

Petting zoos in particular are being targeted in recent news articles as venues for transmission of E. coli O157:H7, one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium.

Multiple locations exist where public contact with animals is permitted (e.g., animal displays, petting zoos, animal swap meets, pet stores, zoological institutions, nature parks, circuses, carnivals, farm tours, livestock-birthing exhibits, county or state fairs, schools, and wildlife photo opportunities). Over the past few years there have been a rising number of illnesses, particularly among children under 5, who have apparently come in contact with E. coli O157:H7 after attending petting zoos and fairs.

The primary mode of transmission for enteric pathogens such as: E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Campylobacter, is the fecal-oral route. Animal fur, hair and saliva can become contaminated with fecal organisms, as well as entry gates and doors, or from touching any surface that may be contaminated with the feces of the animal, unsanitized stalls, trailers and areas where animals have been located, strollers, blankets, clothing, pacifiers, baby bottles, sippy cups, food containers, foods (including sticky foods such as: cotton candy), water and water bottles and then what follows – hands to mouth.

Hand-mouth activities (e.g., eating and drinking, smoking, and carrying toys and pacifiers) should not be permitted in interaction areas. Bring a change of clothes if necessary.

Government health agencies don’t seem to be recommending that petting zoos, animal fairs, or any other place where the public comes in direct contact with animals should be eliminated or generally avoided, but the following recommendations and precautions have been released from CDC and the Humane Society of the United States:

• Venues should be designed to minimize risk.

• Farm animal contact is not appropriate at food service establishments and infant care settings, and special care should be taken with school-aged children.

• At venues where farm animal contact is desired, layout should provide a separate area where humans and animals interact and an area where animals are not allowed.

• Food and beverages should be prepared, served, and consumed only in animal-free areas.

• Animal petting should occur only in the interaction area to facilitate close supervision and coaching of visitors.

• Clear separation methods such as double barriers should be present to prevent contact with animals and their environment other than in the interaction area.

• Hand-washing facilities should be adequate. Hand-washing stations should be available to both the animal-free area and the interaction area. Running water, soap, and disposable towels should be available so that visitors can wash their hands immediately after contact with the animals. Hand-washing facilities should be accessible, sufficient for the maximum anticipated attendance, and configured for use by children and adults. Communal basins do not constitute adequate hand-washing facilities. Where running water is not available, hand sanitizers may be better than using nothing. However, CDC makes no recommendations about the use of hand sanitizers because of a lack of independently verified studies of efficacy in this setting.

Children aged less than 5 years should wash their hands with adult supervision because they may not be able to speak for themselves or understand the consequences.

• Children are at the greatest risk for serious complications caused by E. coli infection because of their heightened susceptibility to infection. This problem is compounded by the fact that children are difficult to control during zoo and fair visits, and are the least likely to understand or follow hygiene rules around animals.

• Persons at high risk for serious infections should observe heightened precaution. Farm animals should be handled by everyone as if the animals are colonized with human

enteric pathogens. However, children aged less than 5 years, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised persons (e.g., those with HIV/AIDS) are at higher risk for serious infections. Such persons should weigh the risks for contact with farm animals. If allowed to have contact, children aged less than 5 years should be supervised closely by adults, with precautions strictly enforced.

This problem is not caused by the animals rather it is how the animals are treated and cared for mentally and physically and how the humans are allowed to interact between them.

What’s needed is common sense and balance, as always, to bring us back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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