NEW YORK, May 6, 2002 -- Each year hundreds of thousands of families visit petting zoos, but in the past two years there have been reports around the country linking petting zoos to illnesses in children. Outbreaks have been reported in Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and one in Canada. On today's broadcasts, Inside Edition investigates the potential danger at petting zoos and reports on test results illustrating just how easy it is to come in contact with germs from animals.
In October 2000, Rick Jacobs of Jeffersonville, PA took his three-year-old daughter Erin to a petting zoo at Merrymead Farms in Pennsylvania. Jacobs tells the newsmagazine: "We had absolutely no idea that a child could become sick from petting farm animals." But just a few days after their visit, Erin became deathly ill. Eventually Erin's kidneys completely failed, and to keep her alive, Rick donated his kidney.
The cause of Erin's sickness was traced to a deadly bacteria called E. coli 0157, which can be present in animal feces. Erin was among 51 people who were reported sick after visiting the farm. She and 15 others became so violently ill they were hospitalized. Inside Edition sought to ask the owners of Merrymead Farms about the outbreak, but they declined to comment.
Today, Rick and Erin take weekly visits to the Dupont Hospital for Children's in Wilmington, Del. She is currently on a daily regimen of medicines, and, according to Rick, Erin will have to visit the hospital once a month for the rest of her life. Rick Jacobs is pushing for a state law in Pennsylvania that would require mandatory warnings and washing facilities, so what happened to him and Erin won't ever happen to another family."We don't want people running into a panic saying don't go to petting zoos. Our message is just be aware of the dangers that are in these petting zoos. Your kid can literally die from petting a cow or a deer," he said.
As part of its investigation, Inside Edition visited eight petting zoos in Florida and took 57 swabs from all types of animals, including cows, pigs, and goats as well as from some of the fencing that holds the animals. The newsmagazine sent the swabs to Micrim Labs in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. To be analyzed. The laboratory found heavy growths of bacteria and fungi on most of the samples.
Dr. Philip Tierno, Director of Microbiology at NY's Mt. Sinai Hospital and NYU Medical Center and author of the book The Secret Life of Germs, analyzed the results, and said these germs are expected among farm animals, "What this shows is that there should be caution exerted whenever you're at a petting zoo."
Many of the animals Inside Edition swabbed had excrement on them. Thirty-one swabs contained E. coli. However, none were the deadly type of E. coli that infected Erin. Six swabs, taken from animals like ducks and goats, contained Aeromonas hydrophela, a bacteria that can cause stomach problems and diarrhea. Two swabs were found to have a bacteria that can cause gangrene in a wound, and 37 contained Pseudomonas fluorescens, a bacteria dangerous enough that its discovery in eye-makeup remover caused the FDA to declare a recall.
Responding to recent outbreaks, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued warnings and recommendations to petting zoos in May, 2001. But of the eight Florida petting zoos that Inside Edition visited, many of the CDC recommendations were not followed. For example, none informed patrons about the potential for dangerous germs on animals, and Inside Edition producers did not observe signs urging people to wash their hands after petting animals, which the CDC recommends.
Ironically, three zoos did have signs warning that humans could infect the animals. One of the zoos had a communal washbasin, which the CDC advises against, preferring running water. And another had no washing facilities nearby. Instead, the particular petting zoo had a bathroom, without soap, fifty yards away.