America's Healthy Summer: Petting Zoos

Petting zoos are a summertime favorite for families where animals like ponies and goats can bring out the big fun. But do petting zoos mean big germs?

To find out, "Good Morning America" traveled to the Red River Valley Fair in West Fargo, N.D., where we saw big tractors, tiny chicks, kids with corn dogs and families enjoying the day at Wally Zerebko's petting zoo.

But what makes the petting zoo so fun? Seven-year-old Alanna Pritchard said it best: "Because you get to pet animals."

VIDEO: Health Safety Tips at the Petting ZooPlay
Petting Zoo Animals Carry Bacteria, Ways to Stay Safe

Fairgoers get to pet sheep, goats, deer, donkeys, llamas -- even a kangaroo and a zebra. With hundreds of hands reaching out, what kinds of germs can be picked up?

With the help of North Dakota State University, "GMA" tested 12 areas of the petting zoo. A lab student swabbed railings, feed dispensers and kids' hands. Even JJ, the resident camel, got in on the action with a swab to the mouth.

"There have been some E. coli outbreaks associated with petting zoos," said Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D, a food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University.

Garden-Robinson said petting zoos are generally safe places, but some groups -- like the elderly and young children -- could be more vulnerable to the bacteria frequently found at them.

"Be sure that young children don't bring their sippy cups or their pacifiers into the petting zoo, because you don't want them to share their sippy cups with the animals," Garden-Robinson said. "Because that could certainly introduce contamination, and they could become ill."

Petting zoos themselves have the power to prevent many outbreaks. Every state has its own rules and regulations for the number of animal vaccines needed, for example.

Wally Zerebko, owner of Zerebko Zoo-Tran, said he spent close to $2,000 to make sure his animals were up to date with North Dakota's standards. And he said he cleans and cleans every morning.

"We bleach wash all the bars with orange cleaner and bleach. Just to get rid of any chance of any E. coli or germs," Zerebko said.

GMA's Petting Zoo Bacteria Test

At North Dakota State University's veterinary diagnostic lab, we found out the results of our swab tests.

"Most of them are environmental contaminants -- the kinds of things that you'd expect to see," said Dr. Neil Dyer, director of NDSU's veterinary diagnostic lab.

Of the 12 samples, the bacteria we found most often were very common and low-risk ones found in the air every day: staphylococcus, which can cause skin infections, and streptococcus, which can cause sore throats and fever.

The tests showed no bacteria on seven-year-old Maddie or 15-year-old Thomas. But on 12-year-old Grace's hands, which touched the animals the most, we found three different kinds of bacteria.

As for JJ the camel, we found E. coli in his mouth. (He might need to floss better).

"There was some coliform bacteria identified, but the problem with saying that the E. coli that you find is significant is that there are lots of different strains of E. coli," Dyer said. "Some of them are just completely benign."

That's why we sent JJ's sample to a special E. coli lab for more testing. Dyer was right: The E. coli found in JJ's mouth was not the dangerous kind. But dangerous E. coli has been linked to other petting zoos, and that's why the good ones provide hand sanitizer dispensers and washing stations.

"We have grandchildren, our friends' grandchildren visit us," said Zerebko, who has hand-washing stations on site. "We want to make sure it's safe for all children, besides our own."

For Sarah Land, a daycare worker in charge of 20 kids visiting Zerebko's petting zoo, the secret to success is to take the memories home, but not the germs.

"We'll be hitting those, washing all their hands, getting some hand sanitizer," Land said. "Really important to us."

Are you washing your hands the right way? Take the quiz to find out!

How to Avoid Illness at the Petting Zoo

If you get something like E. coli on your hands, it does not soak into your skin, so you're only at risk if it gets into your system through your nose or mouth.

That's why prompt and thorough hand washing after a petting zoo visit is so crucial. Remember to say your ABCs to yourself while you wash, so you'll know you're doing a thorough job.

Web Extra Tips

In addition to leaving sippy cups and pacifiers at home, there are things parents can do to avoid bacteria that can lead to illness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together some hand-washing tips and general guidelines:

Take advantage of the hand-washing stations at the petting zoo. Washing your hands with soap and running water is your best bet. If not, try hand-sanitizing gel.

Always wash your hands after petting the animals, touching gates or fences, and before eating or drinking.

Kids must be supervised at all times, especially if they are 5 years old or younger.

Do not bring food or drinks into the petting zoo or share your food with the animals.

For more information from the CDC, click here.

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