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Outbreak News

Petting-zoo safety stressed in wake of E. coli illnesses

By Jim Buynak | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted April 2, 2005

TAVARES -- Despite reports possibly linking a serious bacterial infection to petting zoos, many parents had no problem Friday letting their children play with the animals at a Wooton Park event.

"We've been to petting zoos before," Adam Smith, 43, said as his 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, cuddled a rabbit.

"We make sure we wash our hands and clean up before we leave. And she really loves animals."

Smith was at Wooton Park with a group of parents and children from their church in Tampa to attend the three-day event that started Friday and features Thomas the Tank Engine and includes the petting zoo.

"It [the petting zoo] looks clean," Smith said. "I don't think there is anything to worry about."

Event officials said safety is a top priority in the wake of the reports of the illness.

"We're very particular about what vendors we use," said Kitty O'Hara, sales director of the Mount Dora and Lake Eustis Railway that is putting on the celebration. "We've worked with these folks before, and they are terrific."

The railway has hired Duck Duck Goose Petting Zoo of Bushnell.

"We've never had any problems," said petting zoo owner Lynda Lewis. "We have sanitizers, hand wipes -- we always have. And there are bathrooms nearby."

Earlier this week, Dr. John O. Agwunobi, director of the Florida Health Department, said his department has zeroed in on a single petting zoo as the likely source of the bacterial infection that has sickened nearly two dozen people across Florida.

The Ag-Venture Farm Tour is the only common link for the five victims so far who have tested positive for a specific strain of bacteria known as Escherichia coli O157:H7, he said.

E. coli bacteria are found in animal feces and improperly cooked food.

The severe diarrhea from the E. coli infection also can develop into a related and more serious condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which has struck a number of children. That ailment, which can be fatal, causes kidney failure and can require dialysis.

No new confirmed cases have been reported since Wednesday, but health officials are still investigating 35 suspected cases around Florida and three in Ohio and Georgia.

A Lake County toddler who petted an animal at the Florida Strawberry Festival was hospitalized earlier this week with symptoms similar to the bacterial infection but has since been sent home.

Two Marion County children also were treated and released for similar symptoms.

Although there are no confirmed cases in the county, Lake County Fair organizers said they will not offer a petting zoo at this year's event.

"We just wanted to be safe than sorry until they find what the source of the infection is," fair manager Charles "Happy" Norris II said Tuesday. The fair runs Thursday through April 16.

At Wooton Park on Friday, Shan and Maria Garner of Valdosta, Ga., said they had no problem with their children, Gabby, 5, and Grant, 3, frolicking with the animals.

"We didn't hear any of the reports," Shan Garner said. "You just need to wash your hands."

Lewis, who sat back on a chair and watched as customers strolled through her zoo, said the reports have been devastating to her ledger and have led some customers to cancel events.

"I've lost thousands of dollars," Lewis said. "I'm just not getting the calls. It's a shame for everybody."

She doesn't know what the long-term effect might be on her 10-year-old business.

Lewis said that she always has offered a cleanup area and sanitizer, and that her animals are inspected annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"They get a bath every morning before an event," she said.

The spread of the illness was surprising to her, she said.

"I never even heard of HUS until last week," she said. "And I never heard of an illness spreading like this."

The weekend event -- "Day Out with Thomas 2005 Celebration Tour" -- continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Sunday.

The event offers preschoolers and their families a chance to take a 25-minute ride aboard Thomas the Tank Engine, and includes the petting zoo, a magic show, live music, a hay-bale maze and a moonwalk.

Tickets are $16 for ages 2 and older. For tickets, call 866-468-3401.

More on this outbreak: AgVenture Farms / Florida Fair E. coli Outbreak

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