Summer is here, and every single day, countless moms and dads make decisions that can actually cause their children to get hurt — or worse. I’m not talking about letting them ride skateboards without kneepads or play ball in the street. I’m talking about the risks involved every time a family visits a petting farm, takes an elephant ride or stops at a roadside zoo.
A trip to a petting zoo can result in a trip to the emergency room. Whether they are set up in a mall parking lot or on the midway of a county fair, petting zoos are hotbeds of E. coli bacteria, and numerous children have been infected after visiting such displays. Symptoms can include bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting and fever. It can even be fatal.
In 2015, a toddler died after falling ill with hemolytic uremic syndrome just days after visiting a petting zoo at a Maine fair. This little boy wasn’t the first child to die from an illness acquired at these events, and countless others have suffered from serious health problems, including kidney failure.
Children and adults alike have contracted E. coli after petting animals or simply touching the areas around an exhibition. The bacteria have been found on railings and bleachers and even in sawdust. Yet parents still encourage their little ones to pet the animals.
Roadside zoos aren’t any better. They are little more than backyard menageries or dilapidated facilities where animals are typically kept in barren cages constructed from chain-link or wire fencing. Many enclosures look as if they haven’t been upgraded in decades. Some of these zoos even dupe visitors into believing that they rescue animals by calling themselves “sanctuaries.” But no legitimate sanctuary offers elephant rides or photo ops with tiger or bear cubs, as many roadside and traveling zoos do.
Two visitors to an Indiana roadside zoo, including a young girl, were bitten by tiger cubs in at least two separate incidents during public interactions. A 4-year-old Florida girl sustained severe cuts to her head, and her ear was partially severed by a cougar at a children’s birthday party. And 14 students were bitten by a 3-month-old bear cub in a petting zoo at Washington University in St. Louis.
Profit-hungry exhibitors might be able to deceive parents into believing that interactions with little cubs are safe, but it’s genuinely baffling that parents would think it’s OK to allow their children to ride on top of the world’s largest land animal — the elephant. When a captive elephant goes rogue — and they often do — chaos ensues. At least 15 children were injured when an elephant being used for rides at a Shrine circus in Indiana was startled, then stumbled and knocked over the scaffolding stairway leading to the ride. While carrying children on her back at a state fair, an elephant with the R.W. Commerford & Sons petting zoo panicked, throwing a 3-year-old girl to the ground. At a Shrine circus in Missouri, three elephants escaped from their handlers near the children’s rides and were on the loose for about 45 minutes.
With so many other fun summer activities to choose from, why put your family (and animals) at risk? National Parks are treasures within reach. Interactive virtual reality displays at natural history museums appeal to a generation that grew up with technology. IMAX theater documentaries can open up a whole new world to the viewer. We can’t protect our children from all of life’s dangers, but when it comes to deciding on family outings, the kinder choices are also the safer ones.
Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. Information about PETA’s funding may be found at www.peta.org/about/numbers.asp.