By: Eva Frederick
Among the fluffy rabbits, wobbly lambs and gentle baby cows, another petting zoo resident is not so cuddly. The bacteria Escherichia coli, which can cause illness and death in severe cases, can be spread to humans from various animals that can be found in petting zoos or other animal exhibits.
E. coli cases are usually traced back to the same places: packaged meat, leafy green vegetables, and nut butters, such as soynut and peanut butter. But because E. coli poisoning is often synonymous with “food poisoning,” it’s easy to forget that the bacteria is common in the environment, and especially live animals. The same animals that are common in your everyday petting zoo and farm environment.
The bacteria is usually harmless to animals such as goats, sheep, calves, and poultry, and can persist for weeks in the soil or on surfaces in the enclosures. This makes it easy for children or other people to get the bacteria on their hands, and then infect themselves through hand-to-mouth contact. The threat of E. coli at petting zoos is especially dangerous for children, who tend to have less-developed immune systems.
Several children have contracted E. coli from petting zoos, state fairs, animal attractions, or other places where they come into contact with animals through the years, and a few have died. This has led to laws and precautions put in place regarding animal exhibits. One such law, in North Carolina, is called Aedin’s Law after a young girl who got sick with E. coli in 2004 in an outbreak that affected over 100 others, requires petting zoo operators to have a special license to run the zoo, and also to post signs on the dangers of interacting with animals. Another provision of the law requires the a hand-washing station must be located within ten feet of the petting zoo. Despite this law, and similar laws in other states, a few people contract E. coli from animal exhibits each year.
Although the threat of E. coli or other diseases is enough to make some people stay away from petting zoos altogether, there are ways to keep healthy around animals. We have gathered some ways you can help keep you and your family safe.
How can I stay safe at petting zoos?
If you have a petting zoo trip planned, don’t worry — there are plenty of ways to minimize your risk of contracting E. coli while still getting your baby animal fix.
First of all, it is a good practice to wash your hands regularly with soap and water. This is the best way to make sure your hands are clean and free of bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If there is nowhere to wash your hands, decontaminate with an alcohol-based antibacterial such as Germ-X, then follow up with soap and water as soon as you can. Remember that the alcohol content must be at least 60% to be effective. Wash your hands even if you didn’t touch the animals–you can still pick up bacteria from surfaces at the petting zoo.
Second, be safe and smart with food consumption around petting zoos. Keep food and drink away from the animal enclosure, and don’t share your food with animals, no matter how imploringly they stare at you. Also, do not eat or drink raw or unpasteurized foods or beverages served on site–this includes cheese, juice, milk, and cider. These foods have not been heated to a high enough temperature (usually achieved through pasteurization) to kill harmful bacteria.
Lastly, make sure children are being safe around animals. That means taking extra care to make sure they are washing their hands when appropriate and not putting their hands near their faces or mouths. Also, keep strollers, bottles, and other items out of the animal enclosure to prevent risk of contamination. Keeping a spare change of clothes is also helpful. Do not let children 5 or younger touch poultry or ducks without being supervised by an adult.
The best way to keep yourself and others healthy is to be an educator and spread information on how to stay safe. Make sure those around you know to wash their hands and be wary of eating near animals exhibits, and keep an eye on children around you at petting zoos. For more information, check out the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for staying healthy at a petting zoo.
What happens when you get E. coli?
E. coli is a common bacteria, some strains of which live in the human gut and are harmless. Other strains, however, such as E. coli 0157:H7, can cause illness due to a toxin they release, called Shiga toxin. E. coli poisoning is marked by the symptoms of fever, vomiting, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. More severe cases can cause a disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes red blood cells to be destroyed, their fragments clogging the kidney’s filtering system. This can eventually lead to kidney failure and death.
According to CNN’s E. coli fast facts, around 265,000 people are infected with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli each year. About 36 percent of those are caused by E. coli 0157:H7. The other cases may Although most E. coli cases are resolved on their own, many lead to hospitalizations, and a few–about 100 each year–end in death. Although E. coli can affect anyone, it is most harmful to young children and elderly people–both groups have comparatively weak immune systems and are particularly susceptible to pathogen infections. Food Poisoning Lawsuit Salmonella lawsuit Ecoli Lawsuit
If you want to learn more about E. coli, the CDC has excellent resources for basic information, control and prevention. Their E. coli homepage can be found here. Also, feel free to visit our pages on UnsafeFoods here for information on what to do if your child has E. coli. For anyone with their own animal exhibit or who is interested in starting one, the CDC recommends petting zoo operators follow the guidelines detailed in the 2013 Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings.