Considering all of the disease outbreaks that have been attributed to petting zoos, including an outbreak in the UK this month that has sickened dozens and another in Vancouver that has affected at least 13 people, you would think that people who operate petting zoos would start to take the hint. Unfortunately, that’s clearly not the case.

My family and I went to the Fergus [Ontario] Fall Fair today. Apart from the petting zoos, it was a great day, but the potential for ending up in hospital with a life-threatening infection shouldn’t have to be a concern for fair attendees.

This fair had two petting zoos. One was also associated with a pony ride. We went there first and while my kids were looking at the animals, I noticed there was a table and a sign saying to use a hand sanitizer after touching the animals, but there were not actually any hand sanitizers available. I asked the attendant and he immediately started looking. They eventually found some, but we gave up after waiting a few minutes and went to the other petting zoo location because a handwashing station was set up there. Despite a large crowd around the first petting zoo, I didn’t see anyone following our actions so presumably almost no one washed their hands after petting the animals. The good thing about this first petting zoo was they at least had a clean facility, appropriate animals and no major problems apart from the forgotten sanitizers.

Petting zoo number two was not as good. There were numerous problems, some of them very major.

  • Inappropriate animals #1: As we walked in, someone held out a baby chick and tried to give it two my 2-year-old daughter to handle. Standard guidelines are that children under 5 should not handle young poultry, so these animals are inappropriate for any petting zoo.
  • Inappropriate animals #2: The next thing we passed was a young calf. Calves are also considered a high-risk animal and should not be present in petting zoos.
  • Inappropriate animals #3: The calf had diarrhea (see the diarrhea staining and hair loss probably associated with prolonged diarrhea in picture). It’s very likely that this calf was shedding one or more infectious agents in its diarrhea, such as Cryptosporidium.
  • Food for sale: Food was being sold and consumed inside the tent where the petting zoo was. This is inappropriate.

Petting zoos can be great events for kids. They can also be sources of large and serious outbreaks of infectious diseases. Hopefully nothing bad will come from this and we won’t hear reports of illness in petting zoo participants. But, as I’ve said before, hope is not a proper infection control program.

Anyone running a petting zoo MUST know the issues, risks and proper preventative measures to take. Reading the Compendium of measures to prevent disease associated with animals in public settings would be a good start.