The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has temporarily closed the Kids’ Farm exhibit, which is essentially a petting zoo, because E. coli bacteria were found in some of the animals. No staff have been sickened and no animals are showing any signs of disease, according to the press release, but animals generally do not get sick from this type of bacteria.
Veterinarians found the E. coli stx 1 gene bacteria in goats through a routine fecal screening process on February 18, 2016. The goats were moved into the barn and kept away from other animals and from visitors. More cultures were performed on February 22, 2016. On February 26, 2016, results revealed that four goats and one cow were positive for the bacteria.
The Kids’ farm was immediately quarantined. All farm animals are being treated with antibiotics, in consultation with experts from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Washington D.C. Department of Health.
Not all types of E. coli bacteria cause illness in human beings, and we don’t yet know if the bacteria found in these animals is the shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria type that can make people very ill. The bacteria is passed through the fecal-oral transmission. Some of the animals could have acquired the bacteria through a food source, from people, or from a wild animal.
Brandie Smith, associate director of animal care sciences, said in a statement, “as most people know, E. coli is everywhere in our environment. Because it is so common, we routinely test our animals. It’s unfortunate that we have to close the Kids’ Farm temporarily, but we’re taking the right preventative measures for our guests, staff, and the animals.”
When Zoo veterinarians received three consecutive weeks of negative test results, a plan for lifting the quarantine and reopening the Kids’ Farm will be put in place. The animals will be monitored closely and get weekly fecal testing during the quarantine period.
E. coli outbreaks linked to petting zoos are, unfortunately, quite common in this country. An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to the Zerebko Zoo Tran traveling petting zoo sickened at least 13 people in Minnesota in 2014. An outbreak in September 2013 at Huber’s Orchard in Starlight, Indiana sickened three children in Kentucky and Indiana. In October 2013, three children were sick with E. coli infections at Dehn’s Pumpkins in Dayton, Minnesota. And in 2012, at least 10 people were sickened with E. coli infections at the Willow Grove Gardens Pumpkin Patch petting zoo in Washington state.
The largest outbreak in recent years was at the Cleveland County Fair in North Carolina in the summer of 2012. At least 106 people were sickened with E. coli infections, and one child died.
Whenever you visit a petting zoo, if you choose to, make sure that you carefully monitor your children. Children should never be permitted to eat while in a petting zoo, and should be watched so they do not touch their faces or put their fingers in their mouths until they have left the zoo and their hands have been thoroughly washed with warm water and soap.