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Traveling pet zoo cancels appearance over E-coli concerns

The Bovey-based Zerebko Zoo Tran is associated with at least 13 cases of E. coli 0157 after appearing at festivals and fairs across the state, according to the health department. The first of those stemmed from the zoo’s appearance at the Nashwauk Fourth of July Festival.

The zoo was to have taken part in the Carlton County Fair in Barnum later this week.

Seven of the cases resulted in hospitalizations, including three children. Two developed a serious complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which affects kidney function; and one of those patients remains hospitalized, according to the health department.

Owners Wally and Kathy Zerebko, who started the zoo in 1996, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Allysha Sample, manager of the Carlton County Fair, which opens on Thursday, said she had just learned on Tuesday that the petting zoo wouldn’t be coming. This would have been the sixth year the Zerebkos brought their zoo to the fair, Sample said.

“They’ve been fine,” she said of the petting zoo. “They take care of their animals.”

Dr. Joni Scheftel, a state public health veterinarian, said the blame doesn’t lie with the Zerebkos but with the inherent risk of mixing people with animals.

“Healthy, well-tended, normal-appearing animals can carry germs that can make people sick,” Scheftel said.

The Zerebko Zoo has never been associated with a disease outbreak in the past, Scheftel said. In fact, it follows a health department recommendation by not allowing people in the pens with the animals. Petting zoos that allow that level of contact are taking an extra risk, she said.

But hand-washing is vital after any contact with animals, she said, which is why the health department encourages fairs to provide hand-washing stations next to animal exhibits.

The Carlton County Fair doesn’t yet have hand-washing stations next to its animal exhibits but hopes to by next year, Sample said. Hand sanitizers are available at the entrances and exits to the exhibits and restrooms are located close to the animal barns, she added.

In addition to the E. coli case stemming from the festival in Nashwauk, one case came out of the Polk County Fair, seven out of the Rice County Fair and three out of the Olmsted County Fair, according to the Health Department. Two of the Rice County cases were secondary exposures, meaning the infection developed by contact with someone who had touched the animals.

Additional cases still could come from Olmsted County, which was the most recent in the zoo’s travels, according to the Health Department.

Symptoms of illness caused by E. coli 0157 typically include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, often with bloody stools, but with a low-grade fever at the most, according to the Health Department. People typically become ill within two to five days of contact, and most recover within five to 10 days.

The 13 confirmed cases ranged from 2 to 68 years old, the Health Department said.