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Balancing the risks and benefits of animals in agritourism

By Matt Reese

With crisp fall weather, ripening apples, plump orange pumpkins, and autumn breezes rustling through dried corn leaves, it is the peak of Ohio’s agritourism season. There are numerous unique farm attractions around the state that entertain, educate and help connect consumers with agriculture in creative ways. Many include livestock, which can be a valuable component of the operation, but also a significant source of legal liability.

“Farm animals can be a valuable attraction for an agritourism operation, but having people and animals on the farm creates liability risks,” said Peggy Hall, associate professor for Ohio State University’s Agricultural & Resource Law Program. “Whether feeding, riding, petting, observing, or just being near farm animals, visitors could be harmed and agritourism operators could be liable for that harm.”

Hall is most concerned with the potential for transmission of zoonotic diseases from the animals to humans visiting the farm who may have little to no other exposure to farm livestock.

“The ones I worry about the most are the children and elderly. They are the most susceptible to zoonotic disease transmission. They can pick up those diseases from coming into contact with animals by petting them or feeding them. We even had a case where a baby’s pacifier was dropped in an area where the animals were and the child contracted E. coli from that. That health risk is a huge concern for children, especially children who were not raised around farm animals,” Hall said. “A lot of parents, especially those who haven’t been raised around animals, are not aware of the possibility of contracting zoonotic diseases.”

There are some unfortunate examples of these types of problems with animals in agritourism.

“There was a case with an 8-year-old girl who contracted E. coli on a pumpkin farm from petting the animals on the farm. There were calves and sheep,” Hall said. “She ended up with a disease that will put her on dialysis for the rest of her life. That is a huge responsibility for that farm financially with millions of dollars in the settlement going to that family for that disease.”

The risks of combining the non-farm public and animals are real, though there are laws in place around the country to offer some legal protection for agritourism operations, including Ohio.

“More than half the states now have agritourism protection or immunity laws and ours is one of only two that actually addresses the potential of being harmed by an animal on an agritourism operation. There are other risks inherent to being on the farm itself that are also covered by that law. Our law covers zoonotic diseases as well as any other harm from animals, like bites,” Hall said. “You need to make sure you qualify for immunity under the law we have in Ohio and in order to do that you have to actually fit the definition of agritourism. The farm must qualify for CAUV — you must be engaged in agricultural production in addition to the agritourism. Make sure the law addresses your situation.”

It is important to note that proper signage must be displayed.

“Part of the agritourism immunity law is that you have to have a sign up that says ‘Be aware we are protected,’’ Hall said. “That sign that is required by law.”

To meet the requirements of the law, a sign must be at or near each entrance to the agritourism location or at each agritourism activity, and must state this exact language in black letters at least one inch in height: WARNING: Under Ohio law, there is no liability for an injury to or death of a participant in an agritourism activity conducted at this agritourism location if that injury or death results from the inherent risks of that agritourism activity. Inherent risks of agritourism activities include, but are not limited to, the risk of injury inherent to land, equipment, and animals as well as the potential for you as a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to your injury or death. You are assuming the risk of participating in this agritourism activity.

To get this agritourism sign, contact OSU Extension South Centers Direct Marketing Program or Ohio Farm Bureau. Beyond this specific sign, general signage can be helpful as well. Hall suggested agritourism farms with animals have additional signs pointing out the specific risks of contact with livestock.

“You should have signs that would say, ‘Be careful with your children around animals’ and ‘Wash your hands.’ Give warnings too,” Hall said. “The signs don’t have to be too scary, but you need good, educational and informative signs just letting people know to be careful.”

The methods of housing and displaying the animals can also help to reduce legal liability and risks of harm to visitors.

“The best management practices we recommend are to first try not to allow direct contact with the animals. The feed stations are a potential disaster. The child feeds the animal and puts their hands in their mouth and now we have potential for disease. If you can avoid that it would be good. If you feel strongly that this needs to be a part of your operation, you should have a hand washing station right near the area where that occurs, and not just sanitizer. You need water, soap and paper towels right there as well as directions on how to wash your hands,” Hall said. “You can also do a double fence to keep people away from the animals. Manure is a big problem for disease transmission so keep manure off your fences and keep the areas clean. Keep a separate area for animals and any type of food. Make sure food, like cider or cookies, is far away from your animals’ area. Encourage visitors not to take food into areas where animals will be.”

The types of animals can also help reduce risk.

“Baby animals have higher risks of disease transmission. Goats are more risky than some others and calves are a little higher risk,” Hall said. “If you want to have animals do the research to see which types of animals are less risky.”

Hall said following the steps below to identify and implement management practices can reduce the risk of a farm animal liability incident.

  1. Assess the types of animal-human interactions that occur on the operation and the potential dangers visitors face from being near farm animals.
  2. Identify required and recommended management practices that address each type of animal-human interaction or potential danger.
  3. Include emergency response planning that addresses what to do if there is an accident or emergency involving farm animals and people.
  4. Develop and document standard operating procedures that implement the required and recommended practices.
  5. Train all employees on how to correctly follow the standard operating procedures.
  6. Continuously assess the property to ensure that practices are in place.
  7. Maintain records of standard operating procedures, employee training protocols, and any actions taken to implement management practices. Records can include written materials as well as photographs and videos.

It is also important to note that Ohio’s law does not grant immunity for all injuries that might occur on an agritourism operation. An agritourism provider will not be immune from liability if:

  • The provider had or should have had actual knowledge of an existing dangerous condition that is not an inherent risk and the provider did not warn the participant about the dangerous condition;
  • The provider’s careless or reckless disregard for a participant’s safety caused the harm;
  • The provider purposefully harmed a participant;
  • The provider’s actions or inactions constituted criminal conduct that harmed a participant;
  • The provider failed to post the required sign.

Hall emphasized that animals in agritourism operations should be used with extreme care to minimize legal liability on the farm but also maximize the enjoyment of the visitors’ experience and visitor safety.

“We do have some protection under Ohio law under the agritourism law,” Hall said. “There is some immunity for agritourism providers but I don’t think anyone wants to be responsible for a child or any customer being harmed by an animal on the farm.”

There are a number of additional resources regarding agritourism law at https://ohioaglaw.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/fun-in-the-fall-minimizing-liability-at-your-agritourism-operation/.

Chart from Farm Animals and People: Liability Issues for Agritourism factsheet by Peggy Hall, Ohio State University Extension

 

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