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Allow Young Children in Colorado to Have Ducks and Chickens

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                Chickens and Ducks…. Too Dangerous For Young Children?

On January 14 2016, new regulations went into effect in Colorado preventing licensed child care facilities in the state from having poultry on their premises (if older children are cared for in the facility, the poultry cannot even be present in any communal areas accessible to children kindergarten age and younger). The new regulation precludes children under the age of five from being cared for in facilities with “live poultry including adult birds, chicks and ducklings, reptiles, and amphibians (7.13.1 B).”  Apparently, even a one day visit from a petting zoo is of concern (“Mobile petting zoos are strongly discouraged from visiting child care settings where children less than 5 years of age are present due to the potential risk for disease transmission” 7.12.1.B).

This is part of a growing trend toward the determination that animals and nature are just too dirty, too germy, and too dangerous for young children (additional excluded animals are detailed in section 7.13.1. A of the regulations), and that children need to be protected from nature and animals. It is also part of a growing trend toward the narrowing (or even the absence) of life sciences in the early childhood classroom.  Not long ago, learning about animal lifecycles, taking regular field trips to the farm, even dissecting cow’s eyes were common activities for preschoolers and kindergarteners; today, the teacher who takes her class to the farm is negligent and the teacher who brings tadpoles into her classroom, or incubates chicken eggs is breaking the law.

These are certainly interesting policies for a state whose foundation is its agricultural heritage. Colorado has more than 864 farms, which generate more than $30 million dollars in farm income and attract more than 13 million visitors through agrotourism, generating an additional $2.2 billion dollars in revenue (Colorado Department of Agriculture, 2016). Last year’s Colorado State Fair (which is marketed to families  as being a “fun and educational summer vacation”) was attended by 498, 720 people and generated $29 million dollars in revenue- $340,000 of which was given to youth organizations like FFA and 4H to increase the involvement of children in activities like poultry rearing. Years ago, many people would have said learning about this unique heritage was a Colorado child’s cultural birthright; today it’s a public health crisis.

              What are the Dangers Associated With Chickens and Poultry?

According to the CDC, live poultry may have Salmonella in their droppings and on their bodies (feathers, feet, and beaks).  The germs can get on their cages and in the areas where they roam. The germs can also get on the hands, shoes, and clothing of people who handle them (CDC, 2016). Salmonella causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Most symptoms last 12-72 hours and most people recover without any medical treatment (CDC, 2016).

Other animals carry salmonella as well, including reptiles, amphibians, small mammals (gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, hedgehogs), other birds (parakeets, parrots), farm animals (goats, cows, sheep, pigs, and horses), dogs, cats, and even fish.

                                  How Dangerous Are They? What is the Risk?

In the past 25 years, since the 1990s, the CDC has been able to trace 53 outbreaks of salmonella to live poultry -which resulted in 2,611 illnesses, 387 hospitalizations, and 5 deaths. No statistics exist as to how many, if any, of these outbreaks were related to school/child care settings. It is unclear how many of these individuals were children. But we can say that an American’s current odds of getting sick due to salmonella contracted from interactions with live poultry is .000054%. Their risk of being hospitalized or suffering a fatality as a result is even less.

To put this in perspective, the CDC estimates that 40,273 individuals contracted salmonella during one  five month period in a 2008 outbreak related to Serrano peppers. 203 people were hospitalized and one person died. According to the CDC, the vast majority of salmonella outbreaks, 46%, are caused by produce (fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and vegetables).  Your child is statistically at greater risk of contracting salmonella eating a carrot stick than holding a chicken.

To summarize, is there a risk of illness due to interaction with these animals? Yes. Is it a big risk? No. If a child does get sick, are they likely to suffer a serious illness or fatality? No.  Would one better prevent the spread of salmonella by preventing children 5 and under from having contact with fresh fruits and vegetables? Apparently.

Let’s Compare this Risk to Other Risks that CDPHE Sees As “Manageable” In a Child Care Setting

One might want to argue that any risk is too great when a child is involved, but this is simply an untenable position to take. The reality is that children, particularly in a group child care setting, are surrounded by potential health risks.  Every child enrolled in group child care may be in a classroom containing children who are infected with AIDS/HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, MRSA, etc and the teacher/caregiver may not even know. Is this too great a risk? Apparently not. The CDPHE believes that with proper handwashing and sanitation, children with these potentially fatal illnesses can be in care without concern to others (even among infants, children who are immunocompromised, etc).

Similarly, in their guidance to child care facilities, provided in the document entitled Infectious Disease in Child Care and School Settings, the CDPHE argues that children with known, active infections of RSV (which, according to the CDC results in nearly 58,000 hospitalizations of children under five each year), mononucleosis (despite the fact that a child can shed the disease for weeks and months), viral meningitis,  bacterial conjunctivitis/pink eye, head lice, fifth’s disease (which can result in birth defects if a pregnant woman contracts it), hand, foot , and mouth disease (unless of course, the child’s drooling as a result of the blistered sores in their mouth is too excessive), croup, roseola, shingles, and every STD need not be excluded from child care.

The CDPHE believes that all of these infectious diseases can all be contained in a child care setting with appropriate handwashing, food safety, and sanitization practices.

So, to summarize CDPHE's overall policy toward risk:

§  Placing other infants or toddlers (including those with asthma) in care with a child who is known to be infected with RSV (an illness that results in an average of nearly 58,000 hospitalizations to children under 5 every year), where they will sleep on rest cots 12” away from each other, is a tolerable risk, but allowing a 4 year old to be in a child care facility with a chicken (which has resulted in 387 hospitalizations in the last 25 years) is not?!

§   It is believed that a caregiver can successfully prevent transmission of highly contagious illnesses (like RSV, pink eye, lice, or fifth’s disease) among infants and young children (who are still developing impulse control, the ability to follow verbal instructions, and acquiring basic hygiene skills- learning to blow their noses and cover their coughs and sneezes, who may be mouthing objects and drooling, who may not be toilet trained, who may have developmental differences, who may fall and bleed, and who eat together and sleep 12” away from one another- and no one covers their cough when they’re sleeping ), foodbourne illnesses, and protect herself and others from potentially fatal bloodbourne pathogens (hepatitis, AIDS/HIV), through handwashing and sanitation, but this same person cannot safely supervise a child interacting with an chicken and ensure they wash their hands afterwards?!

§  CDPHE gives parents the right to choose not to immunize their child (a personal waiver) and to enroll them in group child care setting (where they may increase cause an outbreak or infect a child who is too immunocompromised to be vaccinated), despite the fact that the CDC estimates these preventable diseases caused 321 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732 deaths, at a cost of 1.38 trillion dollars to taxpayers, over the last 15 years, but they don’t believe these same parents should be entrusted with the right to choose whether  to send their a child care facility with chickens?!

§  CDPHE permits other animals which are known carriers of salmonella in child care facilities – as a point of fact, almost all animals carry salmonella and shed the virus on their bodies and in their feces (this includes gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, livestock, dogs, cats, and even fish).  (CDC, Salmonella from Small Mammals, 2014). CDPHE  even allows dogs and cats, despite the fact that in addition to being potential carriers of salmonella, they are considerably more dangerous than chickens and poultry (359, 223 children in American were bitten by dogs last year, with 66% of the injuries occurring to the child’s face and neck, costing in $483 million dollars- nearly 1/3 of all homeowners claims are due to dog bites), and their feces are considered environmental pollutants by the EPA  (no one would even think of using dog poop as fertilizer;  a single gram is estimated to contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, which cause serious kidney disorders in humans, in addition to being  possible carriers of whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, parvo, corona, giardia, cryptosporidiosis, and campylobacteria) (AMVA, 2014).  But chickens and ducks are just too dangerous?

CDPHE might argue that even if the teacher was diligent about handwashing, the germs could be present on a child’s shoes or outerwear. But isn’t this always the case? Couldn’t a child come to care having just fed their own backyard or farmyard chickens (nearly 2 million children in America live on farms)? Having interacted with poultry or walked through feces at the Stock Show or the County Fair?  Having stepped on peacock feces at the Denver Zoo? Having handled poultry at a local feed or pet store? Having walked through chicken/goose feces on a petting zoo/farm/orchard/field/bike path/hiking trail, while feeding the geese at the local park with their parents, while picking up their CSA vegetables (or, heaven forbid, fresh eggs!), walking through a garden or field where chicken manure was being used as fertilizer, or while hunting with their dad? Aren’t bird feces, well, pretty much everywhere?  Show me the child who comes to school with no possibility of having bird feces on their shoes, and I will show you a child who probably spent their day indoors in front of the TV. These risks are always present, unless we put children through a decontamination process at the front door.

Let’s follow CDPHE’s logic to its natural conclusion and assume for a moment that there is not selective/uneven enforcement, targeted solely at teachers and the early childhood education industry:

§  Should we expect to see similar regulation of County Fairs and Stock Shows?  Will consumer safety advisories be posted and children under 5 prevented from entering barns where poultry have been present at the Colorado State Fair (498,720 people attended last year, which generated $29 million dollars in revenue) and the National Western Stock Show this year (686,745 people attended this last year- I’m betting a lot of them were children)? What about cows, goats, sheep, pigs- these animals are also known carriers of salmonella, and E-Coli as well?  

§  If salmonella is such a concern, can we safely assume that CDPHE will deny these venues, with potentially infected animals, food service permits (because surely food and animals don’t mix--we don’t want someone petting an animal or touching a contaminated surface and then eating funnel cake and cotton candy- some of these venues even have limited handwashing facilities)? A shame, because last year the Colorado State Fair generated $2, 287,324, up 6% year over year, in food and beverage sales alone. Will roadside farms also lose their food service permits (couldn’t someone pet an animals and eat a carrot)?

§  Will the reptile house be closed to children under five at the Denver Zoo? Will they be denied a food service permit? Here, the danger is not merely theoretical- in 1996, the CDC determined that 39 children were infected with salmonella while viewing a Komodo Dragon exhibit at the Denver Zoo (Jang, 2008). Will they be told to close until they pen up their peackocks and clean up the excrement?

§  Will CDPHE be educating families who live on farms and ranches that these environments are unsafe for children under 5? Is CDPHE saying these parents are uneducated about the health risks involved in this lifestyle, or just unconcerned with their children’s safety?

§  Will municipal parks departments be told to post safety advisories and close their parks until such time as flocks of geese can be removed and their excrement cleaned, because these animals present a clear danger to public health?

§  Will children under 5 be prevented from visiting farms, ranches, camps (where livestock is present), petting zoos, orchards, and zoos?

            What’s It Really About? Nature Phobia and Excessive Regulation

We know that Americans are spending less and less time outdoors, particularly in natural settings engaged in unorganized activity. This is particularly true of children. Conservation biologists and early childhood educators have all expressed concerns about how disconnected children (and adults) have become from nature. Richard Louv famously referred to the same phenomenon as “nature deficit disorder.” In a wonderful article in Scientific American entitled Are Americans Afraid of the Outdoors? Oliver Pergrams, a conservation biologist at the University of Illinois describes his recently completed study showing that less time in nature has resulted in a concomitant change in our attitudes about animals and the natural world, in which wonder has been supplanted by fear –“fear of the unknown, fear of animals, fear of getting lost, fear of crime, fear of disease…” This fear seems to be affecting our decision calculus when it comes to evaluating risk.

Similarly, at the exact moment that STEM curriculums are being pushed down to preschool, the life sciences are disappearing. Your kindergartner might learn to program a robot, or create a circuit, but they won’t be allowed to watch a tadpole transform into a frog, or see a chicken hatch from an egg.


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