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California and the West

Foot-and-Mouth Warning Issued to Nation's Zoos

Health: They are urged to keep foreign visitors away from areas where animals can be touched.

March 30, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Following the lead of the San Diego Zoo, the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. has warned members to protect their animals from being infected with foot-and-mouth disease by foreign visitors or Americans who have just been abroad.

In an e-mailed advisory on Wednesday, the Silver Spring, Md.-based association suggested that signs and brochures be used to ask visitors who have recently been in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia to stay clear of areas such as petting zoos or "photo caravans" where they would be in close contact with animals.

The San Diego Zoo, considered by many the nation's premier zoo, posted such signs Tuesday at the zoo and its sister location, the Wild Animal Park.

The association guidelines were written by Donald Janssen, head of the association's animal health committee and director of veterinary services at the Wild Animal Park. The association's members include virtually all zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks in North America.

Though not harmful to humans, the foot-and-mouth virus can be spread easily from humans to animals and can be carried on shoes and clothing.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth at zoos could be devastating because it could require large-scale destruction of endangered and valuable animals, zoo officials said. Cows, deer, sheep, elephants and hedgehogs are particularly vulnerable.

The San Diego signs ask that any visitors who have been outside North America within the last five days report to the Guest Services office for a briefing on safety procedures before visiting the animal exhibits. A dozen people responded to the signs Wednesday without incident, a zoo spokeswoman said.

Paul Diamond, British consul general in Los Angeles, said the zoo precautions are prudent. But he remains worried that Americans will be scared off from visiting Britain because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

"Britain is very much open for business," Diamond said. "The United Kingdom is a very safe place for any visitor who isn't a cow, sheep or pig."

European zoos already have taken steps to keep visitors from bringing the disease to their animals. In North America, Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay and the Calgary Zoo and Botanical Gardens have put up signs similar to San Diego's.

In San Diego, foreign visitors or Americans who have recently returned from listed countries will not be allowed in the petting zoo, on "behind the scene" tours or up-close photo opportunities. The association guidelines also ask that animals susceptible to foot-and-mouth not be taken into public or on public walkways.

Cynthia Stringfield, head veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo, said no such moves will be necessary in Los Angeles because the zoo, as yet, has no programs allowing contact between humans and animals. A petting zoo is planned for the summer, however.

"We hope this will all be over by then," she said.

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