(PETTING ZOOS) With summer ending and fall fast approaching, it is that time of year when families head out of the city to local farms for hay rides or to pick apples, pumpkins, and more. However, some of these farms exploit and capitalize on our fascination with animals and offer petting zoos at an added attraction, sometimes displaying wild animals that have nothing to do with Halloween in the United States. Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, talks about how families should approach fall festivities and make sure they make the right choice in visiting farms that do not offer entertainment at the expense of other animals. — Global Animal
Visiting local farms can be a great time for the whole family. But make sure to do your research! Photo credit: rumolay/Flickr

By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.

Around this time last year, a friend and I decided to enjoy the lovely fall weather by visiting a pumpkin patch. Neither of us had been to one in a long time, so we started searching for local “farms” on the internet. I use that word in quotes, because most of the places that we found were anything but farms. They advertised pumpkins, animals, and rides for kids, but they were located in the city or inner suburbs. One of them had pictures of a zebra and a kangaroo posted on their website, and another featured tigers. I found that to be bizarre. What could those animals possibly have to do with Halloween or fall in North America, and wouldn’t they seem completely out of place on urban lots?

This was also around the same time that a private exotic animal dealer in Ohio had let all of his animals run loose, resulting in their extermination when police were forced to shoot them to death to protect the public. I was greatly concerned that the animals kept on pumpkin farms in our area might be owned by similar kinds of folks. If we were going to give these places our business, I wanted to make sure that any animals that they had were being treated properly. 

So I did some investigating before we chose the location.

The place with the tigers was immediately off our list. They were part of a traveling exhibit, and kept in cages for their entire lives. That’s not a humane way to treat large cats.

I called the owner of the place with the zebra and the kangaroo, and asked if his facility was monitored by any outside agencies which ensured the welfare of his animals. He was highly annoyed. The conversation went something like this:

Him: “I don’t need Big Brother watching over me. I make sure that all my animals are treated humanely.”

Me: “So what happens to the animals in the winter, when you guys are closed?”

Him: “The animals don’t belong to me. I work with a dealer who brings them in for the season and then takes them away.”

Me: “How do you know what happens to them afterwards? A lot of dealers take those animals and sell them for use in canned hunts.” 

Him: “Well I know this guy and I trust him. He wouldn’t do that.”

Me: “So what does he do with them?”

Him: “Look, I get people complaining all the time about how this animal doesn’t look right or that animal has a sore leg or something. That’s the way they are. You might wake up in the morning sometimes with a sore leg too.”

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the discussion. This man had received complaints from customers concerning the condition of the animals that he used in his business, and he didn’t seem to care. He also had no idea what happened to the animals when they were not on his property.

After a few more phone calls, my friend and I ended up driving a little farther out into the country, to a real farm where families could choose pumpkins which were growing on vines instead of sitting on asphalt. There were plenty of farm animals, some of whom were available for petting, but most of whom weren’t. All of them looked healthy and had plenty of room to roam. The barn even housed a few cats who were available for adoption through a local rescue group. 

Kids who love animals are surely enticed by having the opportunity to pet a zebra or feed a kangaroo. People who set up fall entertainment activities for children are keenly aware of this fact, and they capitalize on it. However, families who are concerned about animal welfare should be careful about visiting seasonal petting zoos. Customers who patronize such exhibits may be indirectly contributing to the suffering of these animals, who are often exploited by people to make a quick buck and then carelessly discarded in the off-season.

For folks who don’t have the time to do background checks on these venues beforehand, which these days includes most busy parents, the most humane option is to find family-friendly activities for the fall which don’t involve animals at all. Setting the kids loose in a corn maze and spending an afternoon with them picking apples are great alternatives. Or locate a few age-appropriate haunted houses, and have them bring along a friend or two for a fun scare. When parents choose these options, there’s no need to worry about whether or not their family’s weekend entertainment takes place at the expense of other living beings.

For more information about Dr. Ramakrishna’s upcoming book, visit her website at: https://www.facebook.com/RaisingKidsWhoLoveAnimals