PLANT CITY, Florida–At least six lawsuits filed against Ag-Venture Farms and the Florida Strawberry Festival, both of Plant City, may hasten the demise of petting zoos.
Two sheep, two cows, and a goat exhibited by Ag-Venture Farms at the Florida Strawberry Festival, the Florida State Fair near Tampa, and the Central Florida fair in Orlando allegedly infected 30 to 80 visitors with an often disabling and sometimes deadly form of e-coli bacteria during March and April 2005, said the Florida Health Department.
The bacterium attacks the kidneys of victims, causing hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severely painful condition that in early stages is often mistaken for a stomach flu. Many victims are incapacitated for life.
About 90% of the ill petting zoo patrons were children. How many will suffer longterm effects is uncertain. There were no verified fatalities. Tests failed to confirm a suspected link to the March 2005 death of Kayla Nicole Sutter, 12, of Wesley Chapel, who visited the Florida Strawberry Festival.
All 37 Ag-Venture Animals “will be quarantined for the rest of their lives,” health officials told Saundra Amrhein of the St. Petersburg Times.
The first petting zoo to close as result of ensuing public concern was Barnyard Friends, of Samsula, near Daytona Beach–a non-traveling menagerie of about 200 animals founded in 1995 by International Speedway Corporation director of community affairs Donna Sue Sanders.
“There were no reports of anyone getting sick after visiting Barnyard Friends. Hand-washing and cleanliness were always top priorities,” wrote Kevin P. Connolly of the Orlando Sentinel. But Barnyard Friends was unable to withstand the many field trip cancellations that followed the e-coli outbreak.
“Most of the animals will go with Sanders when she moves from Samsula to a 13-acre parcel where she and husband are building a home near Lake Ashby in Osteen,” Connolly reported.
At least three other petting zoos were struggling, Connelly indicated.
The Florida e-coli outbreak was the second linked to a petting zoo in under six months. Lawsuits are pending against the Crossroads Farm petting zoo in Bear Creek, North Carolina, identified as the source of an e-coli outbreak that hit 108 visitors to the 2004 North Carolina State Fair in West Raleigh.
“Twenty-four outbreaks have been linked to fairs and petting zoos since 1995,” said plaintiffs’ attorney William Marler, of Marler Clark, a Seattle firm that specializes in e-coli contamination cases.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture on April 21 announced new rules that will minimize animal contact with visitors during the 2005 state far. “The petting zoos this year will be nearly wallpapered with signs warning that contact with animals can spread disease–especially to young children, the elderly, pregnant women and sick people– and encouraging patrons to wash their hands before leaving,” summarized Raleigh News & Observer staff writer Kristin Collins.
But the new rules are not binding upon private organizations that operate on private property, Collins noted.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention published non-binding guidelines for traveling animal shows in April 2002, after tracing e-coli outbreaks that occurred in 2000 to a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and a petting zoo in Washington state.
An outbreak of another potentially deadly bacterial infection, cryptospiridium, in March and April 2005 afflicted 104 people who had either recently visited the Auchingarrich Wildlife Centre near Comrie, Scotland, or were members of visitors’ families.
The CDCP warned in early May that small mammals acquired as “pocket pets” have recently infected at least 30 people in 10 states with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonellosis. The outbreak was believed to be carried by hamsters, mice, rats, and possibly gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, and rabbits.
This followed an April warning that nine people in five states developed salmonellosis after handling Easter chicks. Six cases were traced to a single hatchery in New Mexico. Children were infected in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Traveling petting zoos often feature rabbits and chicks around Easter, but whether there was a petting zoo connection to the salmonellosis outbreaks was unclear.
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