Janet Cromley of the Los Angeles Times reminds visitors to zoos that although the animals may look cute and cuddly, they may be harboring bacteria that may not be as fun, such as E. coli O157:H7.

Taking the time to raise awareness of the risks, and how to prevent them, are key to reducing the incidence of E. coli-related illnesses, she continues.

At the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, Tennessee Department of Health researchers reported that of 1,700 visitors at petting zoos in central Tennessee, 62 percent did not use hand sanitizer stations after visiting the animals.

Another report from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control found that 28 percent of visitors to the 2005 South Carolina State Fair did not use hand-washing facilities.

Other risky behaviors were also common in both studies, such as bringing food and drink into the zoo.

Since October 2004, petting zoos in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona have been linked to outbreaks afflicting nearly 200 visitors, mostly children.

Cromley suggests that parents should keep a bottle of hand sanitizer ready when going to the zoo, and insist that it be used after all contact with animals and surfaces that animals have contacted.