As spring beckons and families begin flocking to petting zoos, fairs, and other animal venues, a few people are coming down with serious illnesses. Some of the latest incidents occurred in Florida, where 60 people in 18 counties have confirmed or suspected cases of E. coli-related illness. The sources were petting zoos in three central Florida counties, and children have been the most vulnerable.
Similar incidents seem to be on the increase, says Jeff Bender, an assistant professor of veterinary public health at the Univ. of Minnesota and co-chair of a March 25, 2005, report published by Centers for Disease Control, prepared by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, and endorsed by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
A list of about two dozen documented incidents in the past decade or so (in IL, MN, OH, NC, NY, OH, OR, PA, TX, WA, WI, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, and a few overseas locations) has been assembled by a Seattle law firm (Marler Clark, William Marler, 206-346-1890). Some of these incidents, which affected a total of more than 1,000 people, are highlighted in the CDC report.

Many venues where people come in contact with animals can pose a risk, says the CDC, including county and state fairs, petting zoos, circuses, carnivals, zoos, farm tours, pet stores, animal swap meets, livestock-birthing exhibits, wildlife exhibits, and schools.
Diseases other than those caused by certain types of E. coli may also pose a threat, including rabies, tuberculosis, salmonella, ringworm, cryptosporidiosis, and monkeypox. Affected animals often show no obvious signs of illness, and testing or antibiotic treatment of animals is of limited value.
In addition, physical injuries such as bites, scratches, stepped-on feet, or broken bones are of concern.
There are few federal regulations covering these situations, and only some states address the problem in any extensive way. However, remedies that can sharply reduce problems are relatively simple, as the CDC report explains, including:

  • hand washing after touching or visiting animals;
  • designing, maintaining, and operating animal exhibits carefully to minimize exposures, including full separation of animal areas from any area where people eat or come in contact with human food;
  • educating operators, staff, exhibitors, and visitors about risks and appropriate protective measures;
  • paying strict attention to those at most risk, including children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems; and
  • properly cleaning animal areas, especially since harmful microbes have been proven to linger afterward for months.