Dire warning about E. coli is necessary
Our child has been to the Green Meadows Petting Farm in Kissimmee twice. There she mingled with 300 of Old McDonald's finest.
The whole concept is hands-on with the animals, down to milking an amazingly tolerant cow. It's great fun.
And so when the school sent my wife a consent form this month about a field trip to Green Meadows, we signed it without a second thought.
And then we heard about children becoming critically ill after visiting petting zoos at the Central Florida Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. It seems they probably were infected with E. coli bacteria carried by the animals.
I didn't have to yank my kid from the field trip. The school canceled it. A lot of other schools are doing likewise.
"My business has dropped tremendously," says the farm's manager, Linda Langford. "I just lost 360 students who were coming [today]. We are thrown in the same category as these traveling zoos and it's just not right. We worked hard to earn our reputation and it is being knocked out from under us."
Animals at Green Meadows have been raised on the farm. They are not shipped around or kept in cramped conditions that make them prone to E. coli infection. Linda says that on a busy day, 1,400 kids will visit the farm. In her 14 years there, she hasn't known one of them to get sick.
But this isn't about a rational assessment of risk. It is about being a freaked-out parent.
Can you imagine watching your boy feeding a lamb one day, then watching him barely clinging to life on a dialysis machine less than two weeks later? And nobody told you about that risk? Nobody told you these infections have been going on at petting zoos around the country for years, and that in Pennsylvania a father had to donate a kidney to his daughter to keep her alive?
I literally would go insane.
Yes, there are signs at petting zoos about eating in the animal pens and hand washing. I assumed they were basic hygiene warnings, like washing hands before dinner. Nobody mentioned consequences.
Here are two signs. Tell me if you would react in the same way to each?
First sign: No eating around the animals and wash your hands.
Second sign: These animals may contain a deadly bacteria. If your child eats around them or does not thoroughly wash his hands after petting them, he could go into kidney failure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has this warning: "Never allow children to put their hands or objects (For example: pacifiers) in their mouth while interacting with animals. Hand washing should be supervised."
Are these people serious? For a little kid, the act of sticking fingers in his mouth is a reflex action. The only way to stop it is waist shackles.
Even so, the answer is not shutting down petting zoos, although there is no way I'd let my kids anywhere near animals at a county fair.
The answer is full disclosure.
Langford says Green Meadows doesn't use dire warning signs about E. coli because "you don't want to scare people."
But parents have a right to know, not only so they can make an informed decision about attending the zoo but also so they understand the importance of supervising their kids. The Legislature should require explicit warnings. That this has not been done yet is truly amazing.