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Experts: Hand washing is key for petting zoos, fairs
Tennessee Correspondent

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Were he alive today, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis would probably be amazed by Dial soap and Purell hand sanitizer – and flabbergasted they’re not used more often by people who were raised to know better.

More than 160 years ago, Dr. Semmelweis figured out hand washing eliminates most germs and saves lives. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s simple to learn and remember, and it doesn’t require any fancier technology than running water.

So why don’t people do it more often, especially in situations involving potentially disease-carrying animals?

This is what the University of Tennessee Extension and state departments of Agriculture (TDA) and Health (TDH) set out to learn through two studies they jointly conducted about a year ago, at random fairs and petting zoos. First, they wanted to establish how prevalent two common germs – e. coli and salmonella – were among random exhibition ruminants. Next, they observed human-animal interaction.

Ruminant fecal and bedding sampling was done at only three locations, a petting zoo and two fair-type exhibits. The results, however, were consistent with the findings of a USDA study from 2002, explained Darryl Edmisson with TDH. The Tennessee study showed infection in at least some random healthy-looking animals; overall, a slightly higher percentage of salmonella was found than of e. coli, but enough of both to establish the need for visiting humans to have a care.

The second joint study involved going to six petting zoos in middle Tennessee and watching people interact with animals – and then watching them touch their faces and food, sometimes without washing first.

Offer more, more often
Recently, UT, TDA and TDH officials have been presenting these findings to extension agents and people who help oversee animal exhibits at fairs across the state, and the results may also be valuable to anyone with an agritourism operation on their farm.

Of the six petting zoos, five offered easily accessible hand-sanitizer stations next to animal pens – that is, plastic wall pumps such as one might find in a restroom. Of the 1,700 people leaving these zoos, more than 1,000 never stopped to use them.

The study also showed more adults bypassed the sanitizer than did children; to be fair, it did not make clear the ratio of adults to children (if there were twice as many adults as children, for example, this observation might not mean as much).

At the zoos where usage was higher, Edmisson noted there were easily visible signs pointing out sanitizer stations, or an employee verbally reminded people to clean their hands as they were leaving. The three state partners also conducted a survey of Tennessee fair boards, with respect to sanitation facilities on their premises. Only 20 of 56 respondents answered the survey, but Edmisson explained the 36-percent sampling was enough from which to pull satisfactory data.

Only 90 percent of those fairs offer hand-washing facilities to visitors near where they would have direct contact with ruminant animals. But it’s probably safe to presume all these fairs (and some of the above-mentioned petting zoos) also sell food and drink.

“You have some fair board members who’ll never walk into a petting zoo (on-premise), and say it’s just fine,” said a man attending the Knoxville presentation of these survey data, speculating how such a gap in logic may have come to exist.

But where food and hand-washing are available, adults should know better, even if their children are too young to have yet learned sanitation. “The mothers and fathers obviously need education, if they can take that picture and watch that,” said one woman in Knoxville, referring to a photo of a woman perching an ice-cream-eating toddler on her knee while both woman and child petted a goat.

Any agritourism or fair manager knows liability may come back on them for an illness contracted at their facility. Because of this, Edmisson encouraged those who work with the public to educate their employees and volunteers on the reasoning behind getting customers to wash hands and use sanitizer, and to be aware how placement of facilities influences their use.

To learn more about these studies or obtain educational materials on basic sanitation, contact a UT extension agent or your local health department office.

This farm news was published in the Nov. 15, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.