Following directions important when feeding animals at attractions

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Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012 5:13 pm | Updated: 10:39 am, Fri Aug 16, 2013.

SARASOTA - An 8-year-old girl continues her recovery after a SeaWorld Orlando dolphin bit her last month. The girl’s parents are furious with SeaWorld over the incident, which got us wondering: what risks should parents be willing to accept in these types of situations?

They've got it all at Sarasota Jungle Gardens: flamingos, snakes, parrots, alligators. And part of the fun is getting to interact close up with the animals. And they say you can do it safely -- if you follow the directions. Otherwise you may find yourself in a frightening situation.

That's what happened to 8-year-old Jillian Thomas, who was feeding the dolphins in SeaWorld's Dolphin Cove when she apparently makes a crucial mistake -- raising the small plate of dolphin food in the air.

The park warns people not to do that. The dolphin went after the food, and in the process chomped down on Jillian's arm. Jillian is fine, with just a set of teeth marks about the size of a dime as a souvenir of her experience. But how do you keep this from happening to your child?

Like SeaWorld, at Jungle Gardens, they allow you to feed some of their creatures…and not just flamingos. "An alligator, some of our snakes, some of our lizards," says assistant curator Dane Gottsch.

And he says they give guests guidelines to keep them safe. "Not to approach the animals right in front of the face, nothing likes to get petted in the eyes. No quick motions, being calm and not startling the animal."

And keep your fingers out of harm’s way. "Keeping your hands flat and your fingers together and not presenting any opportunity for the animals. Animals are unpredictable, so you want to minimize the risk."

Everybody wants to have their picture made holding a Jungle Gardens parrot -- but watch it. “Parrots like Roxanne have sharp teeth and sharp claws, but you are very safe holding Roxanne as long as you follow the instructions."

And they say and parents must make those instructions clear to their child and make sure the child obeys. "It's your job as a parent or a grandparent to guide the child. The child will right away want to go for the bird’s face or it's claws or it's feathers; the birds don't like that, they don't understand and they are right away going to attack because it's their instinct to go back at the child," says Jungle Garden’s Courtney Hall.

But they say you can even safely pet a snake if you follow the rules. "Don't pet the snake in the face. They have bad vision."

Scott and Lisa Curtis, visiting from Michigan with their 14-month-old son, say the dolphin incident was frightening. But it won't keep them from visiting parks and interacting with animals. "We just stay close to him, making sure the animals don't get too close or he doesn't get too close to the animals. If it's an interactive type show, we allow him to touch the animals. If not, we stay close by to make sure fingers and hands are out of the area so he doesn't get bit."

The parents of the little girl who was bitten at SeaWorld are furious. They say SeaWorld employees trivialized the attack.

SeaWorld says nothing is more important to them than the safety of their guests, and they immediately connected with the family after the incident.

Similar incidents happened at SeaWorld twice back in 2006. They say they have no plans to change the attraction.

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