Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm representing several victims of the recent Florida E. coli outbreak, is calling on legislators nation-wide to put into law requirements for the protection of petting zoo visitors.
Proposed requirements include increasing signage and warnings about health risks associated with human-animal contact, providing adequate handwashing facilities at strategic locations throughout petting zoos, and designing petting zoos with the intent of reducing the risks of human contact with animal feces. An outline of proposed requirements is available at the Marler Clark-sponsored Web site www.fair-safety.com.
“I realize the measures we are proposing might seem extreme,” said William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark. “But we’re looking at this from the standpoint of having represented dozens of children who visited petting zoos and ended up with kidney failure and life-long medical conditions.”
At this time, petting zoos must follow guidelines set out in the Code of Federal Regulations. But those regulations apply primarily to the humane handling and treatment of animals – not to preventing transmission of zoonotic diseases. Few states have laws governing human-animal contact at petting zoos; however, under Pennsylvania law:
(1) An operator shall promote public awareness of the risk of contracting a zoonotic disease at the animal exhibition and of the measures necessary to minimize the risk of contraction by posting appropriate notices at the animal exhibition.
(2) An adequate hand-cleansing facility for adults and children shall be conveniently located on the animal exhibition grounds. The operator shall post appropriate notices which designate the location of the hand-cleansing facility . . . and encourage the cleansing of hands after touching animals, using the restroom, and before eating.
Marler continued, “Pennsylvania has a start. The CDC released its Recommendations for Human-Animal Contact in 2001, but petting zoo operators haven’t been paying any attention to those, so it’s time the government stepped in and made actual laws that govern this, instead of relying on petting zoo operators to police themselves. Our kids’ health is at stake.”
Children, the target population for petting zoos, are most susceptible to E. coli O157:H7 infection. Between five and ten percent of children who contract E. coli infection will go on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure and damage to the pancreas, liver, brain, and heart.
“I’ve represented kids with varying levels of damage after suffering from HUS. Nearly all of them are faced with needing multiple kidney transplants in their lifetime. Most suffer from high blood pressure, and several have become insulin-dependent diabetics,” Marler added. “So we can talk about HUS being a rare disease, but these kids will have to live with debilitating medical conditions for the rest of their lives.”
Caring for a person with hemolytic uremic syndrome is costly. Marler has represented children with HUS whose medical bills ranged from $15,000 to over $200,000. “And that’s just the initial hospital stay and a year of check-ups,” Marler continued. “Over their lifetimes, kids with HUS – kids who were healthy before they were exposed to E. coli O157:H7 – will require millions of dollars worth of extra medical treatment.”
“The kicker is, for the most part, families must carry the burden of paying those medical bills on their own,” Marler said.
Most government entities, including state fairs, are immune to lawsuits or can only be sued for a limited amount of money, and the petting zoo industry is not known for carrying large insurance policies to cover the costs of litigation.
“The longer politicians and the fair industry resist changes, the longer our children’s health and the health of the fair industry will be at risk. If we can’t make fairs be financially responsible through legislation, at least we can make them morally responsible,” Marler concluded.