My youngest daughter Erin is in every-other-day kindergarten and goes to a child care centre on her non-school days. Overall, it’s a great place – excellent people, great learning environment and she enjoys herself.
During the initial interview at the centre, what I do for a living came up and we got into a discussion about pets. The person doing the interview talked about how they had policies against bringing in animals because of potential risks and the difficulty in doing it right (e.g. right animals, right supervision, adequate hygiene, informed consent, knowing fears and allergies). In reality, their policies are not quite as strict as they say. I didn’t get too worked up about the parent who was apparently bringing a young puppy in for visits. Erin’s getting outside the high-risk window now (she turned five this year), she’s not afraid or allergic, and she knows how to interact with dogs. Odds were pretty low that anything bad would happen, but it still wasn’t right because I doubt there was much supervision or understanding of the dog’s health status. As a puppy, he/she was at higher risk for shedding various infectious agents, as well as more likely to bite, scratch and poop on the floor. It’s also a risk for high risk dogs owned by people who visit the daycare (e.g. if the puppy happened to be shedding parvovirus and the kids transferred it on their hands or clothes to puppies in their households, like our puppy Merlin). Anyway, like I said, not a great idea but nothing to get too worked up about.
The next issue was a bigger deal. As I was picking Erin up yesterday I saw a bulletin board display that highlighted a recent trip to a pet store by the younger kids. On it was (predictably) pictures of these young kids handling reptiles, including turtles. As I’ve said before, reptiles can be good pets. But, they are clearly high risk pets and high risk people, including kids less than five years of age, shouldn’t have contact with them.
I assume the parents of these kids had to sign a consent form. It probably said something like:
"We will be visiting ___ Pet Store to see and learn about animals."
It probably didn’t say….
"We will be visiting ___ Pet Store, where your child may be handling high risk animals."
It definitely didn’t say…
"We will be visiting ___ Pet Store, where, contrary to recommendations from the CDC as well as virtually every other public health organization that has put pen to paper, your child will be handling animals that have a high likelihood of being covered in Salmonella. Someone might try to ensure that she washes his/her hands after… maybe… We are optimistic that your child will not join the tens of thousands of people that develop reptile-associated salmonellosis every year and we really hope he/she isn’t one of the handful of small children who die from it. Good luck! Please sign here."
There’s a difference between a consent form and informed consent.
There’s an educational value of interacting with animals and there are animal encounters where the risk exceeds the benefits.
I have no doubt that the field trip was arranged with the best of intentions; however, this shows that there is still a need for education of child care providers about pets and zoonoses. The pet store needs to be considered too, since they probably do this regularly. They should know better, and every pet store employee should know basic information about zoonotic disease risks and preventive measures associated with the pets they sell. Pet store visits aren’t inherently bad, but they’re "pet stores," not "petting stores," and it should be a look-but-don’t-touch interaction.
People sometimes accuse me of being a kill-joy, but they miss the point. My girls would have more fun if we let them roll around in the van while driving rather than restraining them in car seats and booster seats (as often happened when I was growing up). I want my kids to have fun, but I’m not going to let them do things that are that dangerous. I want my kids to have pets and interact with animals, but I want it to be as safe as possible. There will always be a risk of infection or injury, and as someone who’s informed and as their parent, I can define the degree of risk that I am willing to accept for them. Child care agencies have to look out for the welfare of the children they supervise. Zoonotic disease exposure prevention is part of that. It’s not a matter of taking the fun out of life, it’s making sure that we provide safe fun.