How to Throw a Pet Party for Kids
Forget about Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Kids today are more likely to be riding the donkey as virtual zoos show up at birthday parties to entertain the cake-and-candy set. The animal kingdom – farm critters, reptiles and arthropods – has become a hot attraction in backyards and family rooms where clowns and magicians once reigned supreme. Don't fall for cool advertising; get recommendations. Ask friends, veterinarians or nature centers if they know anything about the animal handlers you're considering.
But as petting-zoo parties gain popularity, animal lovers are less enthusiastic and are concerned about the health and safety of the animals – and the kids, too.
Animal Party Business Is Not Regulated
The animal party business "is not regulated at all," says Lawrence Carter-Long, Communications coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute (API) in Sacramento, Calif., an organization that campaigns for animal rights.
Should you invite, say, a traveling band of alligators, iguanas and pythons as the main event? No way, says Nicole Paquette, the organization's Government Affairs coordinator. "You should never have a pet party with reptiles," she says. Like other animal rights groups, the API believes exotic animals belong in the wild – not caged and carted from party to party.
But perhaps more alarming from a public health standpoint, 80 to 90 percent of reptiles carry the bacteria Salmonella in feces and on their skin. Children, along with the elderly and anyone with immune deficiency, are most at risk from this potentially fatal bacteria.
Furthermore, animals that are mistreated or frightened may lash out. A snake with a death grip on the guest of honor probably isn't the Kodak moment you had in mind.
Guidelines for a Safe Pet Party
So, if your kid is dead set on a pet party, limit it to domesticated animals and follow these guidelines for a safe and educational experience:
Safety comes first. Find out what precautions handlers take to keep kids from frightening or hurting the animals. Crowd control is key: Will the kids be kept seated or behind a rope while the animals are out? Is just one child with an animal at a time?
Is educational value a priority or is it just a free for all? "I teach mutual respect," says Kathy Burkholder, science and nature instructor for the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who also runs a party business. "When kids learn an appreciation of animals, hopefully they'll learn to appreciate each other a little more."
What about pricing? The tab generally starts at $150 and goes up from there. "You get what you pay for," says Burkholder. "If somebody is really undercutting, that should set off an alarm."
Are the animals calm? Angie Brunette, who owns The Petting Zoo in Charlotte, N.C., says her animals are hand-fed or bottle-fed from a young age, which makes them comfortable with people. "They like interacting with the kids. It's not stressful for them."
Her mission: "To expose children – many of whom never experience animals except on TV or through a fence – to a large variety of young farm animals." To that end, ducks, donkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits, goats, sheep and a pot-bellied pig are included in her entourage.
Cleanliness is an indicator of care level. Do the animals look well groomed and well cared for? Are the children asked to wash their hands before and after handling the animals?
Do any of the guests have animal allergies? Check with the parents before making your plans. With childhood asthma on the rise, this looms as yet another concern.
If, after checking on safety and levels of humane care, you finally wind up hosting a troupe of party animals, relax and enjoy the show. There's a real magic between animals and children that makes a pet party worth the trouble of organizing it.