While the deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany is making headlines, people might be shocked to learn that right here at home, E. coli lurks in a most unexpected place: the petting zoo. Yes, those seemingly innocuous fair and carnival attractions can put people's health at serious risk--so it's best to walk on by.
E. coli infection is far from a rare occurrence. All around the country numerous people--mostly children--have been made ill by this potentially deadly bug after visiting petting zoos. E. coli can spread through having direct contact with animals, by inhaling or ingesting the bacteria (such as when a child sucks his or her thumb or pacifier) or by coming into contact with something an infected animal has touched. The bacteria have been linked to everything from sawdust to sippy cups. Many children with E. coli infections have suffered acute kidney failure requiring long-term dialysis and transfusions. Some have needed kidney transplants.
No one attends a local fair expecting to come home with a debilitating or even life-threatening disease. But the summer fair season is just getting underway, and potentially dangerous animal displays will be presented, right alongside the Tilt-A-Whirl and cotton candy. Hauled around from city to city and forced to interact with constant streams of excited and sometimes careless children, animals who are used in petting zoos can become stressed and afraid. It's little wonder that many are in poor health.
It's not just petting zoos that put fairgoers at risk. Why would any parent trust a transient carnival worker to keep a child safe on a five-ton elephant or a cranky camel? There's no stopping an animal who becomes spooked or who just has had enough. While giving rides at the New York State fair, an elephant panicked, injuring a 3-year-old girl and knocking down and stepping on the handler.
Animals don't like being hauled around in cramped tractor trailers, and they are often skittish and unpredictable. A handler was airlifted to the hospital after a camel who was being used for rides in Miami knocked him to the ground and stomped on him.
And why would you put your little one in the arms of a predator? Tiger cubs look adorable, but they have teeth and claws that nature means them to use. Cubs are frightened without their mothers and often react as any scared youngster would: by striking out.
A 4-year-old boy was clawed by a tiger on display at the Saratoga County Fair in New York and needed 14 stitches for a 1-inch gash on his head. At Florida's St. Johns County Fair, a handler suffered puncture wounds and a 14-year-old boy was knocked down and scratched by a tiger before police used a stun gun to stop the attack. A 5-year-old boy suffered facial cuts requiring plastic surgery after being attacked by a tiger at a photo booth at the North Dakota Sate Fair.
If the word "zoonosis" isn't familiar to you, brace yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians have issued warnings about the multiple bacterial, viral and parasitic agents associated with animal contact. Ringworm is very common in camels and is highly contagious, as is tuberculosis in elephants. Those cool chameleons one can win in the ping-pong toss often harbor salmonella.
For the sake of your little ones as well as for the animals who are exploited at these fairs, the safest course of action when it comes to petting zoos, photo ops with tigers, game booths offering animals as prizes and rides on elephants and camels is to avoid them altogether. Both kids and animals will be better off.
Gemma Vaughan is an animals-in-entertainment specialist for PETA , 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.