Some folks bemoan the disappearance of an opportunity for kids to interact with farm animals. But there may be just too much risk.
By Rose Hoban
The North Carolina State Fair has had many decades-long traditions: ham biscuits and roasted peanuts, gooey deep-fried food, enormous gourds and petting the farm animals.
But that last tradition, the petting zoo, looks as if it’s going the way of NASCAR racing at the State Fairgrounds Speedway, which last happened in 1970.
And while some folks may bemoan a lost chance for children to interact with farm animals, many say it’s not worth the risk.
“Animal contact has been linked to illnesses all throughout the world over the last 15 years,” said Ben Chapman, an instructor in food safety at NC State University who co-runs the website barfblog.com, which has tracked petting zoo-related outbreaks. “Animals that don’t appear to be sick can be shedding pathogens that are dangerous to humans, including E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter,” all bacteria that can cause diarrheal disease and worse.
Chapman noted there was just an outbreak linked to a petting zoo in Maine in the past month that included the death of a 20-month-old boy.
In the end though, it’s probably not a public health argument that keeps petting zoos from the fair, but a financial one.
Part of Americana
The 2004 N.C. State Fair had an outbreak of a highly pathogenic form of the bacteria E. coli recently, where 108 people, mostly children under 5 years old, came down with severe diarrheal illnesses. Eighteen of those affected ended up in the hospital with a form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result from exposure to that bacteria, known as E. coli O157.
In the wake of that outbreak, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Aedin’s Law in 2005, which creates rules for petting zoos and other animal exhibits at state-sanctioned events.
“I’ve spoken in front of National Fair Association and state fair associations, and most people in the business look at it and think [petting zoos are] a really good thing for kids, it’s part of Americana, Mom and apple pie,” said Bill Marler, an Seattle-based attorney who represented many of the families of the 2004 outbreak. “I grew up on a farm and took animals to 4-H, so I totally get it.”
He called the 2004 outbreak a “wake-up call” and gave the legislature credit for passage of Aedin’s Law, named for one of the 2004 victims. He noted the state is one of only a few that have rules about handwashing and animal fairs.
Nonetheless, Aedin’s Law didn’t prevent subsequent state fair outbreaks in 2006 and another 2011, which wasn’t associated with the petting zoo but with a noncontact animal exhibit. That year marked the last time there was a petting zoo at the fair.
Updates to the rules made after the 2011 outbreak didn’t prevent another huge outbreak at the Cleveland County fair in 2012.
Too much risk
In all those outbreaks, Marler represented the families of sick children, and said their stories are heart-rending.
He said an outbreak can also be wildly expensive.
According to Brian Long from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, vendors bringing a petting zoo to the state fair are required to carry a million dollars in insurance.
But Marler said insurers and vendors could well be on the hook for much more.
He estimated a case of hemolytic uremic syndrome can incur a huge lifetime price tag of about $10 to $12 million, between initial hospitalization, ongoing medical costs, disability left behind and the real possibility of a future kidney transplant.
Al Maxwell, an attorney in Atlanta, has faced Marler across the courtroom, defending industry concerns in food and other bacterial outbreaks. Maxwell agreed getting insurance for a petting zoo is expensive for a small operation, yet doable, but insurance for a large event such as the N.C. State Fair is likely prohibitive.
“[A million] would not likely be sufficient if there was an outbreak associated with a petting zoo,” he said.
Maxwell defended the Cleveland County fair in the 2012 outbreak case. He said the insurance in that case was a commercial product from a large, traditional insurance company, “but the limits were not very high.”
He called petting zoos a “dying breed.”
“In my experience, you’ll have a small petting zoo and small venue with small operators that are bringing animals that haven’t been tested for pathogenic organisms,” Maxwell said. “And you have age groups of kids and elderly who have underdeveloped or less-developed immune systems that can’t fight it off.”
He said even with the handwashing stations and added precautions, the risks currently outweigh the benefits.
“My dad grew up on a farm, and I get all the ancestry and cultural heritage. But it needs to be acquired or taught in some other way than kids playing with goats,” Maxwell said.
Aedin’s Law compliance
Petting zoos aren’t the only place where visitors to the fair come into contact with animals or with bacteria from animals said Mark Howell, one of three NCDACS workers who spend their time during the state fair ensuring compliance with Aedin’s Law.There are pony rides and horseback lessons, the Future Farmers of America barn and the milking booth where people get their hands on critters. Even noncontact exhibits such as the pig races and the dogs performing agility tricks have signage and, if there’s any chance of animal contact, a place to wash up.
“The message is that we want folks to know that any time they potentially have contact with animals, there are some risks, and we want you to wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” Howell said.
He was standing outside the cattle-competition pens on opening day carrying a clipboard listing all of the animal exhibits, whether made for contact or not, checking for signage and whether the handwashing stations were complete.
“We still want people to get the warning. If it says ‘Exhibitors only,’ then we say, ‘Here’s your risk, reduce your risk,’ and in Spanish we say the same thing, and then to wash your hands.”
But as Howell spoke, three teenagers walked out of the animal competition area holding pen, carrying opened cans of soda.
Wash your … everything
One thing that helps get the handwashing message across is an exhibit called “Germ City” that’s been at the fair since 2012. The exhibit allows children to rub a fluorescent cream on their hands. They try to wash it off and then are led into a tent with a black light to see how well they did at cleaning.
“They see those germs in their fingernails or in the cracks and crevices,” said Audrey Pilkington from the NCDACS. “Then we can talk about it, how we have to work hard to get those germs that are hiding in there.”
“We can focus on handwashing, but it goes beyond that,” said N.C. State’s Chapman, who praised the precautionary focus taken at the fair. He said prevention is also about cleaning and sanitizing, activities done several times a day at the fair.
But that can’t make up for the mere presence of animals.
“We’ve seen outbreaks where E. coli O157 will move around in sawdust,” Chapman said. “In Denver, 10 years ago, they found the O157 in the rafters in sawdust after an agricultural event.”
He said it’s not just handwashing after touching an animal, but doing it after being in any place where the animals are, “specifically ruminants … the types of animals more likely to carry pathogenic E. coli.”
Despite the warning signs and the uptick in handwashing stations, a quick walk around the state fair reveals parents pushing strollers near animal exhibits, sippy cups exposed to dust and dirty hands and overall behavior that makes risk-mitigation specialists squirm.
And although few involved with the state fair will say it out loud, there’s probably relief that at least there’s no more petting zoo.
“In their brains, people don’t see the risk,” said attorney Bill Marler, who’s become something of a crusader against infectious disease. “They’re doing something that’s so Americana, they can’t imagine that 10 days later their kid could be dead.”