E coli scandal at zoo that left dead animals to rot

Article published in the Sunday Times, 28 March 2010

Daniel Foggo and Hannah Kent-Martin

AN investigation has found a potentially deadly strain of E coli at a popular children ’s petting zoo where dead animals were openly left to rot for weeks.

An undercover reporter who spent several weeks working as a volunteer at the unlicensed zoo discovered:

– Corpses of animals left to decompose near where visiting children play.

– Staff alternating between working with the animals and helping out in the visitors’ cafe, wearing the same clothes and shoes.

– Cafe food stored next to dirty parrot cages.

– No hot water for handwashing except in the cafe kitchen. One worker said there had been no hot water in the toilets for five years.

– Animals suffering with painful diseases and fed inappropriate food such as chocolate, lollipops and marshmallows.

– A swab taken from the faeces of a pig in a petting area showed E coli 0157 in laboratory tests. The strain, which is harmless to the animal, is known to cause a type of gastroenteritis that can be fatal in young children.

Last year several outbreaks at petting zoos across Britain caused a number of children to require medical treatment.

Tweddle Children’s Animal Farm, which opened in Blackhall Colliery, Co Durham, five years ago, is open seven days a week, all year round, and offers family season tickets to encourage repeat visits. Its website claims it is “bursting with animal fantasticness [sic]”.

The farm has a range of exotic animals, such as monkeys, ostriches, buffalo, camels and lemurs. Yet it has no zoo licence, which is a legal requirement. Only regularly inspected zoos can have a licence.

The owners, Denise and Peter Wayman, could now be prosecuted under the Zoo Licensing Act and possibly under the Animal Welfare Act.

The undercover reporter filmed a dead wallaby that was left in a stable for two weeks before being removed. A dead llama was stashed on the other side of a partition from the children’s craft area. The corpses of some species, including a meerkat and a tortoise, were put in a freezer with chicks and mice intended to be used as feed for other animals.

Three obviously ill rabbits that the investigator managed to remove from the zoo were found to have syphilis and untreated abscesses.

When Peter Wayman was asked if he would have a post-mortem examination conducted on the wallaby, he said: “It’s dead, so there’s no point in going and spending more money to find out what was wrong with it.”

He was also filmed feeding chocolate and a lollipop to a capuchin monkey as a weekly “Sunday treat”. Wayman said the monkey was also fed marshmallows and ice cream, which it “absolutely loves”.

Other animals were fed cast-offs from the canteen, such as bread and sausage rolls.

Craig Redmond, campaigns director for the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, which carried out the investigation, said his organisation had been concerned about the zoo for some time. In 2007 Easington district council told Redmond it was aware that Tweddle required a zoo licence and it was attempting to process it.

Despite further follow-ups emails to Easington and Durham county council, which took over responsibility when Easington was abolished last year, the matter was never resolved.

Durham county council said: “We have not received an application for a licence and investigations are ongoing as to whether one is needed.”

Redmond said: “Conditions at Tweddle farm are truly shocking, both for animal welfare and public health. The problems have been exacerbated by the failure of the local authority to close it down for operating without a zoo licence. This zoo is an accident waiting to happen.

“With similar places being implicated in an E coli outbreak last year that led to children being hospitalised with kidney failure, you really have to question how Tweddle farm has remained open.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We will be contacting the local authority at the earliest opportunity to discuss this matter.”

Denise Wayman admitted the farm needed a zoo licence. “We have a pet shop licence,” she said.

“We didn’t have the exotic animals when we started, but slowly but surely over the last few years we have built up the collection.

“We were supposed to have a meeting with Defra and the council, our zoo consultant and us, and they were going to sit down and tell us everything that they wanted.

“But Defra didn’t turn up so the council went away and said they would reorganise it all. And it never happened so we have basically been waiting for the council.”

She said the monkey was not normally fed lollipops and denied other animals were fed junk food.

Of the corpses left lying around, she said: “We usually phone up our dead animal collector within a couple of days and he normally comes, sort of, the day after or the day after that,” she said.

Her husband said: “We take really good care of all our animals. They are all spotless and clean.”

Of the E coli he said: “I will be phoning my vets to find out if we have got it.” He refused to answer further questions.

Young children most at risk

E coli 0157 is a highly infectious bacterium that is sometimes found in the intestines of farm animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs.

If ingested by humans, it can produce toxins that cause severe gastroenteritis and diarrhoea.

In some cases it can lead to haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which causes kidney failure and even death, particularly in young children.

Petting zoos are regarded as high risk. Last summer nearly 100 people fell ill, including two-year-old twins who suffered kidney failure, after becoming infected at a children’s petting farm near Redhill, Surrey.

The Health Protection Agency says frequent handwashing is the best protection.

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