Today, we went to the University of Guelph‘s annual open house, College Royal. As per usual, we only covered a fraction of the events, but had to do the traditional visits with the animals and get some of the Food Science milkshakes (even thought it was -2C outside). Animals are a big part of College Royal. In most cases, you can look but not touch (e.g. Old MacDonald’s barn, livestock shows), but there is a petting zoo.

The petting zoo has evolved a lot over the years. I was in charge of it for a couple of years when I was a veterinary student, but what we do now is very different from what we did then (in the mid 1990s).

  • We’ve stopped using certain kinds of animals. Most notably, the calves (i.e. baby cows) are gone, since they’re considered high risk for transmitting a few important microorganisms. The thing that triggered that was the year we decided to test fecal samples from the calves and found out (not too surprisingly, really) that all of them were shedding Cryptosporidium.
  • We’ve changed the location, for a few reasons. The old location was in a ward in the large animal hospital, which therefore had the potential to impact patient care. The current setup is outside of patient care areas, and makes it easier to contain activities and visitors, and to organize overall.
  • Signage has been improved. We used to have many signs, but they mainly provided just basic information about the animals (e.g. "Hi, my name’s Betsy. I’m a Holstein cow.") I don’t remember having many signs (if any) about hand washing, no food or drink, and other public health measures, but thankfully they do now.
  • Hand hygiene is a priority. We didn’t really do anything in terms of promoting hand hygiene at the event in the 1990s. Now, we have multiple hand hygiene stations, signs to tell people to wash their hands, people reminding visitors to wash their hands, and a structured flow of traffic through the petting zoo that leads people out past the hand hygiene stations.

Big changes, and for the better.

Has anyone ever gotten sick from the College Royal Petting Zoo? Not that I know of, but it’s certainly possible.

Have we eliminated all risk? No. That’s not possible. What we try to do is to reduce it as much as we can.

Are all petting zoos like this? Unfortunately no, they are not. Things at other petting zoos are much better overall than they were even five years ago, but there’s still lots of room for improvement and still an unnecessarily high risk of infectious diseases.

A lawsuit filed recently in North Carolina highlights some of the issues around petting zoos. The suit was filed in response to a 2011 E. coli outbreak associated with the NC State Fair that sickened more than 100 visitors and killed a two-year-old boy. Among the claims in the suit are:

  • animal areas were cleaned in such a manner that E. coli was spread around
  • eating and drinking were encouraged in the animal area (presumably, the actual issue is that eating and drinking were not prohibited. I doubt the fair said "please eat and drink in this area")
  • there were inadequate hand hygiene stations
  • they failed to follow the State Fair’s own guidelines

If these claims are true, that’s a pretty big "oops" and someone is probably going to be writing a very large cheque.

On a similar note, a UK petting farm was recently found liable for a 2009 E. coli outbreak that sickened 93 people.

Petting zoo design and operation aren’t foolproof, but it’s not rocket science either – it’s largely common sense. There are clear guidelines covering the basics, and adhering to them should greatly reduce any risk of illness or injury. Failing to do so leads to trouble, of both the infectious disease and legal kind.