March 25, 2005
TAMPA - Easter events across the bay area are closing up or canceling appearances by petting zoos because of an E. coli scare that's put more than a dozen people -- mostly children -- in the hospital.
At least 15 people have gotten sick after visiting petting zoos in central Florida since February, so the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was among those who are not taking any chances.
"We decided, because of publicity, that it would be better to err on the side of caution. We had no worries at all about it, but we thought the parents would have a lot of questions. We hope it will be back next year," explained Mike Kilgore of the Performing Arts Center.
The health department has linked the E. coli bacteria problem to two traveling petting zoos, including one that visited the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Eleven young children and four adults are now sick -- many of them seriously.
"My little girl was perfect last week. This week, she's on her deathbed," lamented father Shawn Starcher.
Health officials aren't even sure the animals are making people sick, but it's the one thing all 15 victims have in common, so health experts and zoo officials are warning parents to be careful.
Here are some things to look for when you visit a petting zoo: Are the cages clean? Do the animals appear healthy or are their coats losing hair?
Finally, and most important, make sure your kids wash their hands immediately after petting the animals.
"The key to any petting zoo? Wash your hands. That's it," stated Heather Mackin of Lowry Park Zoo.