How Working at a Petting Zoo Opened My Eyes to Animal Neglect
Growing up, petting zoos were the highlight of any event. I was a shy kid who avoided a lot of unnecessary social interaction, but if someone was having a birthday party with petting zoo animals, you could count me in. Parents always made negative comments, but they were mainly focused on the astronomical prices for handfuls of corn to feed nibbling baby goats or sheep. Years later, when I was offered a position at an educational farm featuring, you guessed it, a large petting zoo, I leapt at the opportunity. Marketed as an educational experience for kids who loved animals, with green pastures and baby chicks and all that good stuff, it was a chance for me to have hands-on time with adorable animals, and to give kids the experiences I loved so much as a child. I went into it with an open heart and mind — and quickly realized I had made a huge mistake. All of the flaws I had been blind to in my youth were blatant and impossible for me to look past. Suddenly, not only did I feel tricked — I felt like I was responsible for animals whose care I couldn’t change. While in past years I’ve seen many (well-deserved) criticisms for roadside zoos with exotic animals, it seems many are still willing to turn a blind eye to the plight of the animals — and people—caught up in petting zoos. The time I spent with the company had many bizarre twists and turns, many of them simply due to poor management, but the most notable issues were ones I fear are common among most of these organizations.
The diets of the animals at the farm were, quite frankly, atrocious. A handful or two of corn per child doesn’t seem like much distributed throughout 10 or more animals at a party. However, typically we booked two parties back-to-back, often with 20-30 children at each. And in summer months, we held “open farm” sessions where for a small fee, you could bring your whole family to play with the animals and explore the farm, without any kind of pre-existing party. During birthday parties, the animal caretakers were able to have a certain amount of control over how much the animals ate. But at open events, we pretty much just had to sell however much people would pay for — regardless of how healthy it was for them. Many of our animals suffered from easily preventable obesity — and although they may have been overweight, they were still malnourished due to the poor quality of their diet. Corn was the least of the animals’ worries. We also offered sugar cubes to some animals — with the most problematic being the pigs, who are not able to process large amounts of sugar. One of our pigs reached the point of obesity where she could no longer climb into her shelter at night. Some of us tried to change the owners’ mind to offering apples or carrots (which, granted, are not meant to be diet staples either, but are at least nutritionally more sound) to the animals — however, since the animals had less interest in these foods than fatty or sugary foods, they were not offered so that customers’ experiences were not affected by uninterested animals.
New animals — all the time
Our business had many routine clients who attended every open event; it was also common for birthday party guests to become enamored and ask for their party to be held at the farm. As such, many people frequented the petting zoo. If you have clients who frequent your business, you don’t want them to grow bored. Most petting zoos are careful to rotate out their animals so there is always something new and exciting for their clientele. What happens to the old animals? Mostly, you don’t want to know. Our baby calves and piglets were taken to slaughter when they reached an age where they were not so little and cute anymore. Our roosters suffered a worse fate. We hatched chicks en masse for tons of entertainment — but it’s hard to handle a flock with an abundance of roosters. Ours were turned loose by the owners — they would hang around for a few days, before slowly being picked off by local predators. Many of us cried to see the roosters we had raised from chicks slowly disappear this way — but it didn’t matter. Despite being the ones responsible for the animals’ care daily, we didn’t own them.
Constantly bringing in new animals brought its own set of issues. New animals should typically be quarantined by themselves for two days at the very, very least to prevent the spread of parasites and disease, and to help them acclimate to the stress of new surroundings. We did not practice this. Our animals were placed in the mixed-species petting zoo environment almost immediately after arrival, leading to much distress and sometimes fights. It also led to the transmission of worms after several animals carrying the parasites were not quarantined or tested.
While it didn’t compare to the care of the animals, the staff had it pretty bad, too. Long shifts with few breaks in 90-degree heat, almost always outdoors. At one point, we were requested to only use one water bottle on our shift, and not to refill it. Few of us made over $10 an hour; we had no benefits. We were exposed to anything an animal might carry, along with dealing with the daily routines of being kicked and bitten. On multiple occasions, I showed up to work only to discover that the day’s events had been canceled — without anyone notifying me. And we were held responsible for anything the parents deemed wrong — though it was almost always out of our control.
At the end of the day, most animals don’t enjoy eight hours of nonstop human interaction — particularly with grabby young children who don’t know boundaries about ears or tails. Many of our animals grew stressed quickly, leading to behavior like pacing or excessive grooming and making them more on edge and prone to fighting with other animals. It didn’t help that so many of them were in one enclosure — a playfully running goat suddenly starting movement within a small space often was perceived as a signal of danger by the more shy sheep, leading to somewhat of a panic. Some of the animals craved the attention — but a lot of them deserved a break to relax and unwind from overstimulating activities. There was little we could to do destress the animals without removing them from the petting area. The design of the program was inherently wrong for most animals.
Letting your kids go to a petting zoo isn’t inherently bad. Some are managed very well; animals are rotated out frequently at events so they don’t become overwhelmed, few animals are kept in the same enclosure, the schedule is based around the animals’ needs — not maximizing profit. However, unfortunately, the vast majority of these operations do not run this way. I know that personally, after my experiences feeling out-of-control while witnessing poor animal care and downright neglect, future visits to petting zoos or similar establishments will be a hard sell.