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Germs Fail to Distract Visitors at Petting Zoo

Three-year-old Logan Boehme grasped the tail of a pregnant goat in his tiny fist and grinned.

When the gates opened Sunday morning to the petting zoo at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, kids moved en masse to scratch behind the ears of everything from farm animals to wallabies.

Experts caution, though, that settings such as the Great American Petting Zoo are the perfect place to spread E. coli bacteria, which easily transfers from animals to humans and causes an unpleasant illness. A recent outbreak in Denver may be linked to the National Western Stock Show.

But many parents at the local petting zoo Sunday said they weren’t worried about germs or bacteria.

No problem, said Logan’s stepfather, Rudy Cantu: “We wash his hands.”

Tracing the origin

Hand washing is in fact key to thwarting the spread of E. coli, and the petting zoo makes it easy with a washing station right at the entrance to the critter corral.

But not all tips are so easy to observe.

Can you keep your toddler from sucking her thumb after sidling up to that llama?

“I can’t keep her in a bubble,” Cybill McGlaughlin said of her daughter Mackenzie, 2. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t keep a close eye on Mackenzie’s potential exposure to bacteria.

“My husband thinks I’m a little extreme,” she said.

“It’s definitely something I think about every day with her.”

In Denver, where as many as 20 cases of E-coli had been reported as of Friday — 12 were confirmed — officials were still trying to pinpoint whether the illnesses originated at the stock show. It was a common thread among the primary cases, said Judith Shaly, Denver’s acting public health director.

Watch for symptoms

Shaly said Friday that anyone with symptoms — including blood in the stool and a low-grade fever — should refrain from taking any medication, prescription or otherwise, and immediately see a doctor. Symptoms usually clear up on their own within a few days.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food poisoning and related cases, said the threat of exposure is so high that he wouldn’t risk taking young children or those with compromised immune systems to a petting zoo.

“It’s really a dilemma,” he said.

Marler noted that people feel nostalgic about county fairs and rodeos, but that nowadays people have to contend with bacteria that didn’t exist a few decades ago.

“I grew up going to county fairs and my sister used to take animals to county fairs,” Marler said. “But that was in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s sad, but that was different.”

To cut down on the risk, the local petting zoo prohibits pacifiers, bottles and any food or drink from entering the animal area.

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