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Go ahead and pet the animals

Wednesday, August 03, 2005
By Carrina Stanton, cstanton@chronline.com
Thousands of visitors will soon flock to the Twin Cities for the Southwest Washington Fair.
And more than likely, more than a few of them will come by the barns to see the Erven family’s sheep they raise through the 4-H program.
“That’s part of the fair experience, and part of the reason for the exhibit, so kids can see where milk comes from and where produce comes from,” said mother Peggy Erven, Salkum.
Interacting with farm animals is as much a part of most people’s fair experience as elephant ears and cotton candy. But each year, health organizations warn the public to take steps to make sure the only memento they bring home from animal exhibits is a memory.


Sheep, pigs, horses, goats and many other barnyard dwellers can carry illnesses and bacteria that can be easily transferred to humans. Many of these cross-contaminations reported each year happen at fairs and festivals. More people than normal in contact with the animals is one reason for the heightened risk. The other, Erven noted, is the families who work with the animals are more accustomed to them.
“Farm kids have a different germ tolerance than city kids,” Erven said. “I don’t think we could make our kids’ environment totally antiseptic.”
Coming in contact with a sick animal is possible but unlikely at most fairs. Locally, before animals are allowed in the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds barns, they are inspected by a veterinarian for illnesses. Also, those showing the animals take great care in ensuring the livestock they bring do not carry any disease.
“One time we had an animal who had won grand champion at a large show locally and had a good chance of winning supreme at state level, but he was healing (from an illness), so we left him home,” Erven said. “You want to be able to trust the other people in the show ring.”
What many visitors to the six-day extravaganza do not recognize is contact with perfectly healthy animals can also make them sick.
The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes organisms including E. coli 0157-H7, Campylobacter, Salmonella and Cryptosspordium are found in the feces of most livestock, which often contaminates the animals’ fur, hair, skin and saliva. If ingested by humans, these bacteria can cause symptoms such as fever, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. The danger is especially high for seniors, children younger than 5, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
Visiting the animals at the fair does not immediately lead to illness, though. The CDC reports many illnesses following trips to animal exhibits result from unsafe practices. Today, most fairs offer hand-washing stations with soap and running water, which are the first and best line of defense.
Erven added she usually keeps a bottle of hand-sanitizing gel with her at all times when her family is on the go. She said parents might consider doing the same when they know there will be animals around, just in case hand-washing stations are not available.
A thorough hand-washing after coming in contact with animals or their environments is especially important before eating. The Southwest Washington Fair does not allow food in the barns, but the CDC notes some festivals still allow a close proximity of food and livestock. Eating while touching animals and their pens is discouraged.
“I watch parents who bring their kids in, and they’re eating popcorn and they’re mixing events,” Erven said. “I think the general public need to be eating in food areas, and they need to bring a little bottle of Purell with them.”
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Carrina Stanton covers municipal government and health for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8241, or by e-mail at cstanton@chronline.com.
Stay healthy at animal exhibits
The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list the following recommendations to stay healthy at animal exhibits:
ï Find the nearest hand-washing station and use it after touching animals or their enclosures, and especially before eating and drinking.
ï Consider carrying a bottle of hand-sanitizing gel in case hand-washing stations are unavailable.
ï Keep food and drink out of animal areas.
ï Do not allow children to put hands or other objects in their mouths while interacting with animals.
ï Never share food with animals — this will keep both you and the animal healthy.
ï Senior citizens, children younger than 5, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems should limit exposure.