Contact animal health has come to the forefront through close attention to zoonotic disease and ethical concerns at zoological institutions. While the medicine may be the same for contact animals as for other collection animals, many of the issues impacting their health and well-being are more complex. Considering all of these issues when dealing with “herds” of contact animals results in a more progressive approach to their care.
What is a contact animal? A contact animal at a zoo is an animal that is intended to be touched by the general public. The purpose of such contact is usually to enhance the visitor experience, further education efforts, and to potentially generate revenue. Many species of animals have been used over the years in contact areas, including elephants, camels, birds, rodents, reptiles, carnivores, etc. Obviously, each species comes with its own set of health and husbandry concerns, as well legal and moral dilemmas.
There are no standard policies dealing with the entire issue of contact animals. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s (AZA) Animal Health Committee has developed “AZA Guidelines for Animal Contact with the General Public,” which provides an excellent overview of recommendations on how to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.3 AZA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal Welfare Act stipulate that all contact should occur under the supervision of trained personnel. The USDA may also restrict the use of select species for use in contact with the general public (e.g., bats). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes recommendations regarding practices to reduce the risk of disease spread to the general public and tracks occurrences of such spread.
While few zoos prohibit all animal contact, most allow “controlled” contact. It is up to each institution to develop a comprehensive program of husbandry, preventive health, handling protocols, liability control, and education issues for contact animals.
What is the cost/benefit ratio of maintaining contact animals? Some of the questions to be considered include:
- The public “connection” to the animal?
- The acquisition of many of the animals through the pet trade?
- The surplus created in the farm situation?
- The potential of zoonotic disease spread?
- The stress on the contact animals?
- The public perception of the role or status of some of these animals?
- While the public may view all contact as part of a “fun” experience, what message are they taking home and what message are we trying to convey?
What is an appropriate contact animal? Three main criteria to consider are species, numbers, and rotation. Species selection should be based on “appropriateness” for handling and husbandry requirements. Appropriateness is obviously determined by the animal’s ability to withstand handling, behavioral tendencies (e.g., aggression), zoonotic disease potential, size, ability to house adequately, and supply. Purpose for the selected species should also be considered. It may be educational (what story do we want to tell), fund-raising (camel rides), or just for contact (because the public expects it).
Numbers of animals should be adequate to allow normal social interactions, breeding if this is desired, and for rotational use. Rotational use of contact animals should be part of any policy, allowing for scheduling of medical procedures, feeding schedules, “days off,” and enabling educational needs to be met with little disruption in the event of unforeseen problems. This rotation is especially critical if there are off-site programs, which are by nature more stressful for the animals involved. It should include limits on time used throughout a given day as well.
In order to maintain good health in contact animals, husbandry must be adequate. Too often, contact animal living areas are marginal since they are frequently “stored” out of public view or added as an afterthought. On-site housing should be designed for the species in question, rather than ubiquitous metal caging. Every attempt should be made to house animals that do better outside with indoor/outdoor facilities (e.g., raptors). Caging should allow for normal behaviors and normal social arrangements, while still being efficient for cleaning and handling. Off-site facilities (e.g., traveling zoos) should protect the animal from the elements, allow for normal postures, protect the animal from injury, minimize stress, and, if necessary, allow for food and water access. A written policy of the restrictions for animal use off-site should be developed, including weather and site restrictions. Any use of contact animals off-site should require that those animals not be exposed to other non-collection animals at the sites and not be put in any potential danger of contracting illness at the sites. Ideally, contact animals should be housed separately from other collection animals at the institution as well. This will help prevent the spread of disease from contact animals that may be contracted during travel or during public contact.
Though USDA specifies that contact areas be supervised, this may be done at different levels. Keepers, education personnel, volunteers, or other staff may all handle animals for public contact at any given time. All should be adequately trained in proper handling techniques, should understand the policies and restrictions for animal contact (and be willing to enforce these), and be able to recognize signs of stress or illness in the animals they are handling. There should be somebody in charge of overseeing that all of these conditions are met and maintained. Veterinary care can be quite time consuming for contact animals for a variety of reasons. Though usually there is much known about the husbandry of the species involved, a number of health issues routinely develop: injury or stress related to inadequate housing, handling stress, reproductive concerns (whether sterilization or production), nutritional care, and geriatric problems since many of the species used age rather quickly.
All of the contact animals in one area (e.g., a children’s zoo or farm) may be considered a “herd” or the animals in a social group may be considered a “herd” (e.g., guinea pigs or camels). Either way, there is the potential for disease spread between animals of the same or different species. Every effort should be made to minimize this possibility. Proper quarantine on entrance to an institution, isolation of any sick animals including removal from all handling, limiting possible exposure to infectious disease, isolating contact animal areas from other collection animals, and properly training personnel in how to limit exposure to disease and how to recognize signs of illness are all important in maintaining herd health.
Psychologic health may be as important as physical health and can certainly affect physical health. Much attention has been placed recently on environmental and behavioral enrichment. These principles apply to contact animal areas as well. The holding areas for contact animals should be as complex and interesting as possible, just as exhibits are for other collection animals. Training methods are as effective on these animals and many species will respond to the added attention in a positive manner. Handling animals are exposed to an entirely different level of stress as a part of their routine and every attempt should be made to counteract this via proper husbandry and enrichment.
Nutrition is key to maintaining health in any animal. Fortunately, for many of the species used in contact areas (rodents, birds, reptiles, farm animals), there is plentiful information on proper nutrition. Vigilance is required to make sure the animals receive the diets that are prescribed for them. In the past, many zoos offered a “feed the animals” option at select sites as a revenue generator. There are still a number of institutions that do this, though it can be problematic in a number of ways. Having the public feed, even a commercial food item, can create dietary discrepancies, as there are usually individuals in groups that are more likely to eat from the public, resulting in obesity in those individuals. Offering feeding opportunities also seems to give some members of the public the “approval” to feed non-approved items to the same animals or to feed other collection animals throughout the zoo; it sets a precedent. Finally, allowing feeding of animals can increase the chances of the animals contracting disease or increase the spread of zoonotic disease to the public.
Zoonotic diseases are a risk in any contact animal program. Though this risk cannot be eliminated, it may be minimized or managed. A written policy should be in place for any program detailing how to minimize the risk: stipulating animal preventive health issues, who may touch, how to instruct the public on hand washing, where to have contact, etc. Table 1 presents some of the most common zoonotic diseases of concern, but is by no means intended to be exhaustive.
Table 1. Some common zoonotic diseases of concern
Species of concern
Preventive measures relating to the animal
Ruminants; swine; canids
Routine serologic screening; eliminate reactors
Young ruminants, especially calves; swine; horses; reptiles; birds
Routine fecal screening using acid fast method; proper sanitation
Mammals, especially cattle; birds
Routine serologic screening; routine vaccination where appropriate; treatment if indicated; proper sanitation
Psittaciformes; Columbiformes; Anseriformes; Galliformes
Routine testing using serologic and swab methods; appropriate treatment; proper sanitation
Routine vaccination where appropriate
Proper diagnostics with culture; isolation and treatment of affected animals
Mammals; birds; reptiles and amphibians
Mammals, especially ruminants, elephants, primates; birds
Proper diagnostics for particular species; appropriate treatment or removal; proper sanitation
In addition, recommendations for minimizing the risk of zoonotic disease for people are listed below.1,3
1. Hand washing facilities (with soap and hot water) should be in proximity to any contact area.
2. If hand washing is not available, a less preferable choice would be to offer hand sanitizers for use after contact.
3. Always have contact areas supervised and post risks and recommendations for the public. Always recommend that people wash their hands after touching the animals.
4. Restrict who can touch: no children under the age of 5 years, no pregnant women, no immunocompromised individuals. Post the warnings for these individuals.
5. Restrict contact to touching (with hands); no hugging or kissing.
6. Do not allow food/drink consumption in the contact area (or vice versa).
7. Keep the contact area clean of urine and fecal material.
8. Always keep the contact area under control, not too crowded or unruly.
Contact animals are at risk for injury from handlers and from the general public. Access to these animals must always be under supervision by properly trained personnel. The potential for physical damage or even theft is great in free flight or walk-through areas.
Reproduction and Surplus
Since many contact animals age rather quickly (e.g., rodents, ferrets) or are required to reproduce for educational purposes (e.g., farm animals), reproductive health issues may be of concern. These may include nutritional support for pregnancy or young, additional facilities for isolation or offspring, manpower for 24-hour care, sterilization or processing of offspring, and complications of pregnancy. A larger issue, rather than the actual health issues surrounding reproduction, may be the surplus of animals produced. Unless the animals are intended to stay at the institution for education, where do they go? Public opinion and perception of sending animals from zoos to slaughter or the pet trade is not what it used to be. Careful consideration should be given to the humane disposition of animals produced for educational programs.
At the other end of the spectrum, what happens to all of the education animals when they get old? Obviously, the number of chronic health problems increases with age for many species, and, since life spans may be fairly short; it may be a never-ending cycle of problems. The incidences of neoplasia and degenerative changes (e.g., arthritis, vision, condition) increase with age. A policy regarding the ultimate disposition of “retired” education animals should be considered.
Contact animal health care can be problematic, frustrating, and time consuming. Consideration to all the issues is critical in developing a comprehensive, functional plan. Developing and implementing a set of policies may increase quality of animal care. These policies should include:
1. Preventive medicine incorporating monitoring and prevention of zoonotic diseases.
2. Public contact guidelines, including hand washing and contact restrictions.
3. Acquisition and disposition policy, especially for domestics.
4. Training for handlers.
5. Husbandry and enrichment guidelines.
6. Collection plans for education animals, including reproduction targets.
7. Environmental temperature guidelines.
8. Traveling zoo policy.
1. Garner JS, Favero MS. Guideline for handwashing and hospital environmental control (Section 1). For: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1985. [Online]. Available at: https://wonder.cdc.gov/wonder/prevguid/p0000412/p0000412.asp
2. Michalak K, Austin K, Diesel S, Bacon JM, Zimmerman P, Maslow JN. Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection as a zoonotic disease: transmission between humans and elephants. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol 4 No 2. 1998. [Online]. Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/4/2/98-0217_article
3. Miller RE. AZA guidelines for animal contact with the general public. American Zoo and Aquarium Association. 1996. [Online]. Available: www.worldzoo.org/vetforum/publicon.htm. (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 12–11–2020).
4. Steele JP. Zoonoses. In: The Merck Veterinary Manual. Kenilworth, NJ: Merck & Co., Inc.; 1998:2161–2185.