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The Petting Zoo Problem

Last month, a toddler died from an E. coli infection acquired at a county fair. Petting zoos have caused dozens of outbreaks in the last decade, all while experts struggle to make them safer.

Food Safety News

By James Andrews | November 16, 2012

Katie Maness was 13 years old when her parents took her and two friends to the 2004 North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh. It was a beautiful October day, as her mother Becky recalls years later, and the three girls were excited to visit the petting zoo on their own.

Inside the zoo exhibit, the trio saw the usual suspects: cows, pigs and a goat. All were in a pen where visitors could interact with the animals free of barriers. But soon the goats began to jump onto visitors, and eventually the small-statured Katie was knocked to her hands and knees on the muddy ground.

The exhibit didn’t offer any hand washing stations, only hand sanitizer dispensers, so Katie did her best to clean off with what was available, but could only hope to wipe away the worst of the grime before heading off to explore the rest of the fair.


Last month, North Carolina saw another petting zoo outbreak, this time at the Cleveland County Fair. At least 106 people fell ill with E. coli O157:H7, including 2-year-old Gage Lefevers, a Gastonia boy who died as a direct result of his infection.

Other children spent weeks in the hospital, some in the intensive care unit with hemolytic uremic syndrome. Jordan McNair, a 12-year-old Cherryville boy, was finally released from Levine Children’s Hospital last week after 35 days in treatment.

The day after McNair’s release, North Carolina state health investigators officially declared the fair’s petting zoo exhibit to be the cause of the outbreak. Runoff from rains during the duration of the fair likely helped spread the bacteria to other areas of the fairgrounds.

“These are just needless deaths and illnesses,” Becky Maness said. “We should be smart enough to figure out a way to see animals without this happening.”

Read, "The Petting Zoo Problem" at Food Safety News.

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