Is it time we did away with petting zoos?

This month Higgledy Piggeldy Farmyard issued an impromptu notice on Imhoff Farm’s website, saying: “After consultation with Imhoff Farm management we have decided to remove all petting access to the animals. No further picking-up or handling of animals will be allowed, under any circumstances for any child supervised or not.”

It’s not yet clear what transpired to force them to shut the petting zoo down but many commentators and parents are speculating that it could have been after an incident where a child was particularly rough and an animal was injured as a result.

Many parents were disappointed at the announcement (see below) but they also applauded the idea saying it was ‘the right thing for the animals’ and some said that they had witnessed some kids manhandling the animals, chasing after them in the enclosures unsupervised and terrorizing them.

The Cape of Good Hope SPCA weighed in not long after the Facebook post, saying: “Well done Imhoff Farm for putting the welfare of your animals first! We hope that many other facilities that allow animal petting will follow your example! Animals are likely to suffer discomfort and stress when they are subjected to a constant barrage of strange noises, activity and people trying to touch them. Rabbits, in particular, are extremely sensitive, easily stressed by unfamiliar surroundings and scared by loud noises and sudden movements. As natural prey animals, they panic when handled and because of their fragile skeletons can suffer serious injury if they are dropped or held improperly! Thank you Imhoff Farm on behalf of all those who can’t do so themselves!”

But is it right to shut down all petting zoos?

While I stand to be corrected I’ve not heard of any other companies, farms or services that are going to shut down their petting zoo following this announcement.

Others in the Cape Town area and surrounds that have petting zoos and similar offerings where kids can interact with animals, include: Giraffe House, Bugz Playpark, Butterfly World, and Lat Wai farm where kids can have birthday parties and stroke animals in the barn.

Kids can also be in the company of wilder or aquatic animals. There’s the Two Oceans Aquarium that offers an interactive touch pool, Le Bonheur Crocodile farm where people can touch and hold young crocs, and Spier Wine Farm, which offers an eagle encounter experience where you can also enjoy up-close-and-personal interactions with, hawks, falcons, owls, kites, buzzards, snakes and lizards. If you go to Boulders Beach your kids can walk among penguins or swim past them.

Permanent and pop up petting zoos are popular in South Africa and are also commonly found at markets and fairs. I’ve also seen parents hire mobile petting zoos for their child’s birthday party in the park.

While lots of small businesses and big establishments are coining it out of letting children access their animals, there is a disquiet brewing about them and how ethical they are. Animal rights groups appear to be the most vocal about these services.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for example point out that travelling zoos are bad news for animals and humans. On their website they say: “They subject animals to the stress of transport, alien environments, irregular feeding and watering, mishandling, and crowds of strangers. Many children and adults have been mauled by tigers, primates, and other animals who are used as props in photo shoots, and countless people have been sickened—and some have died—after contracting diseases from animals in petting zoos.”

Meanwhile parents, while relieved at the idea that one petting zoo has shut down to save the animals stress and injury, are tacitly supportive of these businesses. It does after all, if managed right, provide children with lots of education about what animals feel like, how they should be handled and cared for. Sometimes this is the only way children get to handle animals such as rabbits, pigs, goats and horses. Not many of us live in the country where we can house lots of animals and expose our kids to them.

We’re a nation that loves animals and I like to think that for the most part we treat them with care. There are of course those few parents who don’t supervise their kids while they run riot in animal enclosures. Either way, their actions have spoilt it for the rest of us who do ensure that our kids don’t rattle the animals or squeeze them too tight.

Unfortunately, it’s also some of the businesses that are at fault. Some (and I’d like to state here that not all of them) don’t have the animals’ interests at heart and are happy to cart them around from one birthday party to the next and let them get fed on the whim of a child.

If we do shut them all down though, where and how will children learn about animals? And what will happen to all the jobs they create and the homes they generate for the animals. Will some of these operators and farms be able to keep these animals if they can’t make money from them?

It will leave kids with little exposure save for the interactions they have with the family dog or cat which, lets be honest, get some rough treatment initially until we finally drum it into our kids that yanking tails and fur is not a done thing. I’ve seen several Facebook posts where parents have pointed out how patient their pets are for tolerating the babies and their curious natures. Does this mean we should then not have pets  around at all if we bring children into the world?

When it comes to petting zoos perhaps the answer lies in more supervision in the enclosures. Age limits need to be imposed as older kids are more likely to understand the ramifications of hurting an animal. Petting zoos could perhaps expose children to animals that are more ‘tolerant’ and less likely to scare and put a cap on the number of kids allowed in the enclosures.

Rules about transportation, feeding and limiting the number of times and hours animals are exposed to children during the day is also needed. The problem is how do these animal welfare organisations monitor or police this? It sounds like a virtually impossible feat.

Petting zoos have been known to do good though. Bath Spa University for instance set up a petting zoo outside the university’s library to encourage students to take a break. The animal therapy included stroking goats and feeding ducks. And there’ve been reports of other universities are doing the same.

But I can almost hear what you’re thinking: ‘These are university students who should know better’. Well yes, this is true. But how did most of them get to interact with animals such as this in the past? How did they know how to treat these animals? Perhaps it was their exposure to a petting zoo that showed them how to interact with them in the first place and treat them with respect.

Reaction to the shutting down of Higgledy Piggeldy’s petting zoo 

Mombabbles rounded up some key comments from Imhoff’s Facebook page following the announcement of Higgeldy Piggeldy’s petting zoo shutdown:

“Heartbroken for my daughter as this is one of her favourite places but totally understand as I don’t think I’ve ever been there where I didn’t have to shout at somebody’s unsupervised kids because they were chasing or being rough with the bunnies.”

“It’s wonderful to hold the animals and to engage with them, but golly, some are very gentle with the animals, and other are not. One must always do what is in the best interest of the animals. You have done the right thing.”

“Excellent news! Wish all petting zoos would stop! Especially those mobile ones that go to kids’ parties! So traumatizing to be stuck in loud vehicles then to be chocked and squeezed and chased by little kids!” “It’s not the kids fault! I remember being so overwhelmed by a cute puppy or bunny I just wanted to cuddle! It’s natural! But it’s not natural for us to exploit them like that.”

“On my last visit to Higgledy Piggeldy farmyard I witnessed 2 young children under 10 yrs chasing the little rabbits. The poor little rabbits were trumatised. I told them to stop!”

“Yes! Well done and thank you for the decision! Wish all other places that offer this traumatizing ordeal for these poor animals will put a stop to it as well. Humans need to learn that animals are not here for our entertainment!”

“Real pity for kids that were so gentle and parents that watched closely to ensure their kids didn’t hurt the animals but I too totally understand and support the decision. My little one is going to be very sad but feeding and interacting with the other animals still a lot of fun hope people will still support.”

“I am sooooo glad. So many parents don’t teach or watch their kids at places like this. Makes me so angry to see kids man-handling these poor animals, chasing them and heaven knows what else.”

“So sad that it has had to come to this but happy that the animas safety has been looked after. Many times we have seen young children unsupervised and chasing, rough handling and squeezing the animals.”

“Really the best news ever – the horror stories which were sparked by one post on South Peninsula Moms still haunt me! Inconceivable that some parents simply do not supervise and animals had to die and suffer horrendously for this. Should be banned everywhere.”



4 thoughts on “Is it time we did away with petting zoos?

  1. The Two Oceans Aquarium touch pool is supervised by volunteers.
    Maybe more experiences like that.
    Or the eland at the Gantouw Project.
    Or volunteering somewhere like TEARS or DARG or SPCA – if it is about kids (and their parents?) learning to treat animals with kindness and respect.
    Even the penguins at Boulders needed protecting from selfies when they were moulting, and just needed to rest quietly.

  2. Wow. What a great informative and well laid out post. Super impressed.
    It is unfortunate that there was no supervision and come on parents, step up, watch your kids and teach them to be kind and respect all life.

    1. Thanks Sharon! It’s so disappointing that the petting zoo area shut down. Hopefully my post will go some way to educate parents more about how they let their kids run around in petting zoos so that more don’t shut down because of kids manhandling animals.

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