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Zoos advised to take steps to shield animals from virus

SAN DIEGO - Following the lead of the San Diego Zoo, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association on Wednesday warned members to protect their animals from being infected with foot-and-mouth disease by foreign visitors or Americans who have recently traveled abroad.

In an e-mailed advisory, 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, or 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 to be the premier zoo in the United States, posted such signs Tuesday at the zoo and its sister location, 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 Wild Animal Park. The association's members include virtually all zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks in North America.

Officials at the Toledo Zoo said they have not received any recommendations from the association concerning visitors who recently have been overseas. The zoo has no immediate plans to take extra measures in connection with outbreaks elsewhere of foot-and-mouth disease.

Andi Norman, a spokesman for the Toledo Zoo, said that if a warning is received from the AZAA, the zoo would follow the advisory.

Although 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 past five days to report to the guest services office for a briefing on safety procedures before visiting the animal exhibits. A dozen people responded to the signs yesterday without incident, a zoo spokeswoman said.

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

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