Gurnee’s Serpent Safari is being sued by the family of a two-year-old boy who allege the child contracted salmonellosis from a snake at the zoo. The child became ill and was hospitalized three days after visiting the zoo and petting a snake. The boy’s mother got sick shortly thereafter. It’s unclear if the same Salmonella strain was found in the snake or what degree of proof is present that the zoo was the source, but contact with reptiles is a huge risk factor for salmonellosis.

Exposure to zoonotic infections like Salmonella is an inherent risk of animal contact. We accept some degree of risk in everything that we do. The question is "Did the zoo take reasonable precautions to reduce the risk of disease transmission?" Based on the information in the Chicago Tribune news report, the answer is pretty clearly no.

There are standard guidelines for animal contact events that should be followed. These include:

  • Children less than five years of age should not have contact with reptiles.
  • There should be good, convenient access to hand hygiene (handwashing stations or alcohol hand sanitizers).
  • Signs should be present to encourage people to wash their hands after animal contact and discourage high risk people (e.g. two-year-olds) from having contact with high risk animals (e.g. snakes)

The family alleges that the zoo is negligent because it:

  • Did not have notices regarding handwashing after contact with reptiles.
  • Did not provide hand sanitizers for patrons.
  • Did not provide warnings regarding the risk of Salmonella for high risk groups.
  • Allowed and encouraged the child to touch the snake.

We live in a pretty litigious society, but people need to assume responsibility for their (and their childrens’) health and safety. However, exhibits that allow people to have contact with animals have a moral and legal responsibility to provide as safe of an environment as reasonably possible. Risk will never be zero and people can get sick from the best run events, but there is no excuse for failing to implement basic measures to reduce the risks.

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