Petting Zoos have technically been around since 1938, when a children’s section was created at the London Zoo but zoos really began with the menagerie — a collection of wild or exotic animals typically owned by aristocrats. It was a symbol of wealth and the menagerie wasn’t used for educational or scientific purposes, unlike many modern zoos.
However, the petting zoo often comes off more like a menagerie than a zoo. They’re still usually started by a wealthy person who has a love of animals and although there are federal and state regulations regarding petting zoos, a modern concern arises: are they ethical?
According to PETA: “Roadside petting zoos are horror shows for animals, who can’t escape visitors’ grabbing hands and often go without adequate veterinary care or nutrition — and they can be downright deadly for human visitors who become infected by E. coli, salmonella, listeria, or a host of other pathogens,” wrote Foundation Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Debbie Metzler in an email. “PETA cautions everyone to stay away from these dangerous operations and report cruelty or neglect whenever they see it.”
Nevertheless, different kinds of interactive petting zoos are located all over the country and many of them are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which holds the highest measures of safety for these facilities. The AZA has multiple standards a zoo must follow in order to be accredited.
In Idaho, Zoo Boise and the Idaho Falls Zoo are both AZA accredited and both have interactive exhibits.
There are also nearly a dozen different types of petting zoos in Idaho that do not carry AZA accreditation but follow the standards necessary to operate under federal U.S.D.A. and state regulations. One of them is Babby Farms, located in Caldwell. The petting zoo was started in 2008 when the owner Cheryl Fullilove decided to take her love of animals and combine it with animal therapy.
According to the website the nonprofit’s mission is: “To give children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to experience the joy of interacting with a wide range of animals. Most of our animals are hand-raised for this purpose. To help our cause, we are open to the general public for a fee. Studies show that all people, disabled or not, benefit from hands-on interaction with animals.”
Early this fall, the zoo was accused of animal cruelty and abuse by a group of former employees, including Carly Beach, Allison Lizaso, Gabrielle Derrey and Samantha Shea who was the lead caretaker for Babby Farms in 2017. The group started a petition to have the zoo shut down, alleging a slew of abuses ranging from poor diet, lack of enrichment, neglect and lack of medical logs. The group also compiled a list of animals they believed died due to mistreatment at the farm, alleging 55 over two years.
Shea, the former caretaker, said that contrary to PETA, she believes there is a place for petting zoos if high levels of standards are enforced but that Babby Farms was failing to achieve those.
“If they held themselves to the standard of real zoos, their issues would have been fixed years ago and we would not be questioning what happened to the lives of 55 animals (and counting),” said Shea. “I hope the remaining animals are able to get the care they deserve, and should have been receiving these last few years. Staff is often helpless in these situations and the blood is entirely on the hands of negligent management who refused to get the proper equipment necessary for these animals to thrive.”
The manager at the farm Aaron Johnson said the allegations were false and the farm goes to great length to ensure the health of the animals and the quality of the zoo exhibits. There was a general consensus between Johnson and the petitioners that there was an overall lack of employees who had received extensive training with exotic animals. But Johnson said they use vets with the appropriate training and are constantly updating diets and procedures according to the situation.
“We feed twice a day and work with zoos to update diets that are best for the animals,” said Johnson. “There’s no budget when it comes to taking care of their needs. We’re also hiring someone to come in and update all the enrichment and building new enclosures for the summer. All of that was in the works prior to these allegations.”
Following the complaints, the “Babby Farms Animal Care Investigation” was conducted by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, The Idaho State Department of Fish and Game and Gem County Sheriff’s Deputies. They concluded there were no signs of neglect or abuse.
According to the report:
“Facilities were assessed for general safety in cleanliness. Limited odor in fecal matter were present throughout. Enclosures were found to contain each respective animal, mainly consisting of chain-link panels. Food and water were noted in all enclosures of buildings one and two, and the primary enclosures. Staff were actively feeding and cleaning throughout the inspection. All exhibits and enclosures had plenty of freshwater and salt/mineral blocks where appropriate. All animals appeared to be well nourished.”
The petition is still up for people to sign. Babby Farms plans to re-open, per usual, next season.