The negative publicity associate with the recent outbreak of E. coli and hemolytic uremic syndrome in Central Florida is causing petting zoos all across Florida to have diminished business, if any at all.
Parents have stopped taking kids to the petting zoos. PTAs have cancelled animal appearances at spring festivals, and the Hillsborough County School District has imposed a moratorium on all field trips to petting zoos and farms.
Old McMicky’s Farm in Odessa, for example, usually gets more than 200 children an hour and entertain more than 32,000 Pasco, Hillsborough, and Pinella schoolchildren a year. Now, with the moratorium and negative publicity, they have lost $30,000 in revenue and are in danger of going under.
“If people stay frightened through the summer, we’ll have to close,” said Janice Rodda, president and program manager for Old McMicky’s Farm. “We don’t know what to do.
“Jennifer Borg, owner of Pony Party Plus in Tampa, provides animals for birthday parties, catering to 20 people in a back yard as opposed to 5,000 people at a fair. But her business is also down 50 percent. Granma’s Hug-n-Farm in northeast Hillsborough, which normally would welcome 600 children a week, had only 34 visitors – a 90 percent drop. Owner Harriet Brooks just had to sell 11 of her sheep so that she could feed the rest of her animals.
“I feel very bad for these people,” said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. “For the most part, (petting zoos) put on a very good business. For many, and for the public, with the urbanization of America, this is the only opportunity kids have to come face-to-face with animals.”
The school district understands the educational value of petting farms, said school district spokesman Mark Hart, and that it may lift the ban within days. District officials want the state to complete its investigation into the outbreak before allowing children back on farms.
“It seemed prudent under the circumstances to take that precaution,” Hart said. “We just want to talk to somebody (at the Health Department).”
28 people statewide have been confirmed to have contracted an E. coli-related illness and an additional 46 others are suspected of having been afflicted – something that parents and school districts are trying to avoid repeating.