May 20, 2014

A set of long-standing federal regulations that have been overlooked for years may lead to the closing of the petting zoo at Swan Lake State Park, a popular spot for kids and their parents just southeast of Carroll.

Under those regulations, Carroll County Conservation, which manages the park, would be required to obtain a permit for the petting zoo, pay a member of its staff to be present during the zoo's operating hours and install an additional fence 3 feet from the existing fence to ensure no one can touch the animals while the zoo is closed.

The regulations that are being enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are a part of licensing requirements included in the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which protects animals that aren't raised for food or fiber - such as fur and wool.

The Carroll County petting zoo sits on the east side of the park and most often has goats but has had pigs and other animals in the past.

The licensing fee - which ranges from $30 to $300 depending on the animals - and fence is not an issue, said Jason Christensen, county conservation director.

In past year the conservation board has spent between $800 and $900 in feed for all of the animals at the park, including the bison and eagle, not just animals in the petting zoo.

"But we would have to have a paid staff member to sit over there while the petting zoo is open, and with our small staff that's just not feasible for us to do," Christensen said.

Christensen said having volunteers work the petting zoo could be a remedy for the issue, but he said USDA inspectors do not recommend the use of volunteers in the case of possible lawsuits.

Some local leaders view the issue as overregulation by the federal government.

"The licensing I'm OK with, but the other requirements are ridiculous," Carroll County Supervisor Dan Nieland said. "They're just not feasible."

Nieland said lawmakers should adopt a so-called "inherent risk" law - which, for example, exempts county fair officials from lawsuits if fairgoers are injured by an animal at the fair - to cover attractions such as local petting zoos.

"I think there needs to be something like this for these petting zoos," Nieland said. "If you and your child are willing to walk in there and pet these animals, you're willing to take the risk that one of them might bump you or knock you over.

"There needs to be some kind of regulation that way, rather than going ahead and staffing it because you're not going to be able to stop those things anyway."

In the past there have been no known incidents where an animal in the petting zoo has harmed a person or vice versa.

Carroll resident Andy Geary, in an interview at Swan Lake last week, said he has mixed feelings about the closure of the petting zoo.

"My kids are going to be bummed," Geary said. "However, with safety and regulations I can understand where they're not going to have the money, and there are a lot of safety issues without someone there full time."

There are currently no animals in the petting zoo, and it will continue to stay closed until the conservation board finds a way to remedy the current situation.

"I would like to see it stay open because it has been a staple out at Swan Lake, and it's fun to bring the kids out, let them get outside, run around and feed the goats," Christensen said. "It's something that has always been there, and you kind of expect to see it when you go out there, but the regulations are kind of prohibitive to having it."

The future of the petting zoo will be decided at the next board meeting on June 2. If the board decides they will not be able to open the petting zoo, Christensen said, the board will then discuss what will be done with the area. Currently the board doesn't have any concrete ideas, however, Christensen said he would like to see something kid friendly replace the petting zoo.