Thoughts on the Management of People Interacting with Zoo Animals

There have been many changes over the years in zoo designs and practices to increase the likelihood of public contact with animals. Enclosure design has changed, such as the removal of visual barriers including cages to improve visitor experience and the welfare of animals. Enclosures that increase the likelihood of interaction include walk-through enclosures, drive-through exhibits, touch pools, contact areas (such as petting zoo areas). Some animals are also moved around zoos while visitors are present. This might be for educational purposes or for transferral.

With increased interaction between humans and animals there is greater risk of injury to humans as well as animal welfare issues. Many countries have health and safety laws that do not allow direct contact between visitors and dangerous (eg. category 1) animals.

Feeding Animals
Animal feeding by visitors is becoming more common in zoos and can be an additional source of revenue. However, there are risks associated with feeding activities such as the risk of infection of zoonotic diseases.  Zoos are generally required to make sure that visitors are aware of these risks and provide facilities for visitors to wash or sterilise their hands following contact.

Before allowing contact between visitors and animals, many zoos are required to carry out a risk assessment to visitor health and plan on appropriate control measures. They are also required to educate the visitors on the related risks. This information can be conveyed in various ways such as on feed bags, in zoo brochures, signage at enclosures or entry to zoo or through verbal instructions by zoo employees.

To reduce the chance of disease spread it is important that animals are also excluded from areas where visitors consume food and drink.

As mentioned above, zoonoses are diseases that are transmissible between humans and other animals. Zoonoses are a significant issue for zoo WH&S.  The types of zoonoses that may be encountered by zoo keepers and visitors to zoo will vary with the animals and the region the zoo is in. Below are examples of some of the more common zoonoses found in zoos. Be aware that this list is in no way exhaustive.

• Cryptosporidiosis – found in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. In faeces. Hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects. Contaminated drinking water also a source of infection.
• Leptospirosis – found in rat urine. Therefore found in materials contaminated by rat’s urine, storage areas and contaminated water. Transmitted through cuts or abrasions in the skin and nose, mouth and eyes lining.
• Psittacosis (Ornithosis) – disease found in exotic and domestic birds. Usually transmitted through dust inhalation or droplet infection.
• Ringworm – common fungal infection in farm animals and some domestic pets. Transmitted through direct contact with the animal.
• Salmonellosis – found in a range of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. Transmitted through hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects.
• Verocytotoxin (E.coli) – found in ruminants (cattle and sheep), wild birds and pets. Transmitted by hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects.

Legionnaires’ Disease
Legionnaires’ Disease is a potential fatal waterborne disease. It is a form of pneumonia which can be caused by inhaling small droplets of water contaminated with the legionnella bacteria. These bacteria are usually found in waters stored between 20° and 60°C. There also needs to be a source of nutrients for the bacteria to feed on (eg. rust or scale). Potential sources of legionnaires’ disease in zoos include air conditioner cooling towers, water tanks, tropical houses, showers and some sprinkler systems. It is important to identify risks in zoos and minimise potential risk of infection to staff in zoos.

Other Safety Issues
Other Health and Safety issues associated with working in zoos include:

• Violence at work – this can be abuse, threats or an assault from a visitor, pressure group or co-worker.
• Building, works, repairs and maintenance – these create new hazards for employees and visitors
• Volunteers – special provisions must be made to ensure the safety of volunteers in the zoo as well as their impact on the safety of other employees and visitors.
• Control and use of firearms – fire arms or dart guns may be needed for hazardous animals.
• Communication systems – especially important when dealing with dangerous animals
• Hazardous substances – storage and administration of dangerous drugs such as cytotoxic (cancer treating) drugs and others that can cause illness to humans
• Hazardous waste – infectious diseases, cuts and needle stick injuries, irritation to eyes, throat, nose and skin
• Injuries from enclosures – manual handling injuries, cuts from sharp edges, and possible spread of disease through poor husbandry practices.
• Autoclaves and sterilizers – potential for burns and scalds from steam if not used correctly.
• Allergies – potential allergic reactions in employees and volunteers to animals such as respiratory illness (eg. asthma) and skin reactions.

The main goal of risk management is generally to eliminate or minimise potential workplace risk as far as is reasonably practicable. This is the case for most organisations and zoos are no exception. In general zoos aim to offer a safe environment for staff, visitors and students. Prior to developing a risk management plan, zoos identify risks (hazards) to staff and visitors (as mentioned above) in a risk assessment. Once these risks have been identified, zoos can then prepare a risk management plan.

The Risk Management Plan
A risk management plan is essential tool for assessing and managing potential risks when working in zoos. The purpose of a risk management plan is twofold, employees and visitors are protected from personal harm and the operator is protected from litigation and the financial losses incurred as a result of litigation. The plan is a written document that states the likelihood of risks occurring and the measures in place to deal with problems.

Risk management measures are put in place in accordance with relevant WH&S legislation. Zoos may also be required to prepare a risk management plan for their activities to gain accreditation with relevant associations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).