SHELBY — Petting zoos will be missing this year from several North Carolina agricultural fairs, including the Cleveland County and N.C. State fairs, which have been hit with E. coli outbreaks.
Animal exhibits will continue as usual, but officials say the future of petting zoos is up in the air because of liability concerns.
Last years outbreak at the Cleveland County Fair resulted in 106 E. coli cases and a toddlers death. Shelby lawyer O. Max Gardner III, who represents the fair association, said seven civil suits filed by families of the victims have been consolidated in Gaston County and are under review by a Superior Court judge. No trial date has been set.
Tennessee-based Circle G Ranch, which ran the petting zoo at the 2012 Cleveland County Fair, is also the target of a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the countys 89th fair is scheduled to open Sept. 26 for an 11-day run.
Despite the pending lawsuits and concern over what happened last year, Gardner said from what hes heard people are hopeful the local tradition will continue to be a success.
We think it will be a bigger and better fair if the weather cooperates, he said. Its like going back to a 25th or 50th reunion a chance for people to see a lot of old friends.
Last November, state and local health officials said the petting zoo at the fair was the focal point of the E. coli outbreak.
A Cleveland County Fair Study Commission began looking at ways to make the fair safer and announced its recommendations in early June.
Measures recommended by the 17-member panel included adding hands-free paper towel and soap dispensers in restrooms, and posting more signs including large, flashing signs at animal exhibits where hand-washing stations are located.
Other recommended safety measures included providing clear separation between all food vending and animal exhibits and animal entertainment. The panel also recommended installing underground drainage piping to handle surface water and any runoff from animal areas.
Gardner said fair officials didnt have enough time to get all the measures in place before the Sept. 26 opening and decided against any animal-contact exhibits, including a petting zoo.
Critics target petting zoos
While petting zoos are popular with the public, some animal rights groups take a different view.
Ashley Bryne, spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said animals are hauled around in conditions that cause discomfort and stress and can harm their health. She said animals can also pose a risk to public health through diseases they transmit, such as E. coli.
Petting zoos are stressful to animals and dangerous to people who visit them, she said. We ask that people do not patronize them.
In 2006, two years after an E. coli outbreak at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh, legislators passed a law that requires permits for animal-contact exhibits.
State Fair spokesman Brian Long said this years fair, which runs Oct. 17-27, wont have a petting zoo because the operator couldnt get liability insurance. Insurance companies are somewhat skittish, he said. Were starting to hear more in the state of that type of situation.
Petting zoos are popular attractions, and for many folks its the only time they interact with farm animals, Long said. Id like to see it return at some point. But I cant say anything beyond this year.
Long expected the N.C. State Animal Science Club to continue providing a cow milking area where fairgoers make contact with animals. Also, the State Fair Ark will be back, offering a chance to see at one spot some of the animals taking part in fair competition.
There will still be an opportunity to see farm animals, Long said. The one difference this year is there wont be a petting zoo.
Liability insurance concerns
Kevin Hardison, marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, said several others among the states 45 agricultural fairs have decided not to have petting zoos this year.
Its a financial decision based on a fairs ability to purchase liability insurance, he said. And given the potential for petting zoo visitors to get sick, liability insurance is a necessity, Hardison said. It makes good sense.
Some fairs are replacing petting zoos with such things as pony rides, but Hardison hopes animals continue to be an integral part of the operations.
Id hate to see a fair come to town and not have animals in it, he said.