Petting zoos: Closing time

November 12, 2012 

For all their allure, in recent years petting zoos at agricultural fairs have caused too much pain and sorrow for too many youngsters and their families in this state. Unless and until there’s a completely reliable method of assuring that no young child will contract E. coli-related illnesses at fairs’ petting zoos, the operations, popular as they are, should be prohibited.

The latest evidence comes from Cleveland County. As detailed Saturday in a report from The Charlotte Observer, a petting zoo at the fair in Shelby has now been determined to be “the focal point” of the E. coli outbreak that took the life of 2-year-old Gage Lefevers of Gastonia and sickened 105 others last month, according to health officials. This despite the fact that the General Assembly, following a horrific E. coli episode traced to a petting zoo at the 2004 State Fair in Raleigh, passed legislation requiring permits for animal-contact facilities at fairs and mandating precautions such as hand-washing stations.

No doubt “Aedin’s Law” (named for then-2-year-old Aedin Gray of Carrboro, who survived a life-threatening kidney illness traced to the State Fair petting zoo) was well-meant. But according to the state public health veterinarian, there’s no evidence that the 2005 law wasn’t followed in Cleveland County.

Officials are still puzzling out what went wrong, but here’s a common sense conclusion: In these settings, such close contact between very young children and animals such as sheep and goats – and sometimes, inevitably, their feces (where the illness-causing pathogens lurk) – can lead to serious consequences.

The Saturday story quoted a mother as saying “Unless you’ve been through this, you don’t know how serious it is.” Given the nature of the illnesses involved, the health risks, with their potentially lifelong consequences, are unacceptable.

Too bad, because children and animals are natural companions and because animal husbandry remains important to North Carolina and its future. So keep alive the great tradition of American agricultural fairs – but bid their petting zoos farewell.

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