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Lawsuit claims boy pets snake, gets salmonella
By Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff

From left, cousins Kenyon Mussehl, 12, Owen Mussehl, 6, and Amelia Mussehl, all of Verona, Wis., and Cassidy Petersen, 13, of Volo, hold "Lemon Drop" at Serpent Safari at Gurnee Mills Tuesday. A lawsuit has been filed in Lake County circuit court claiming that a 2-year-old boy contracted salmonella after touching the snake, an albino Burmese python.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Employee Evelyn Feinberg holds "Lemon Drop," an albino Burmese python, at Serpent Safari at Gurnee Mills Tuesday.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

A lawsuit has been filed in Lake County circuit court claiming that a 2-year-old boy contracted salmonella after touching "Lemon Drop," an albino Burmese python, in December 2007.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/30/2009 12:00 AM

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A lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages has been lodged against a reptile store and zoo in Gurnee Mills after a 2-year-old boy purportedly contracted salmonella after petting a snake there in December 2007.

Serpent Safari Inc. violated state laws by not providing liquid sanitizer for patrons or having a sign warning of infection risk to children younger than 5 who touch or handle reptiles, according to the complaint, filed Dec. 11 in Lake County circuit court.

Lawyer Michael Maher, who didn't return telephone messages Tuesday, filed the suit on behalf of Sara Wirtz and her son, Trevor, and Judith Penoyer, all of McHenry County. Without providing specifics, the suit alleges Penoyer also contracted salmonella.

Serpent Safari owner Lou Daddono countered that he's confident the albino Burmese python that Trevor would have petted did not pass on salmonella. The snake lives at the store and is not for sale.

Daddono, who also denied the negligence claims, estimated more than 400,000 visitors have touched the python without a problem in his 11 years in business. He questioned why it took two years for the salmonella suit to be filed.

Salmonella is commonly known as a bacterial disease that can be contracted from contaminated food, with diarrhea, headache and nausea as symptoms. It also is spread when infected food handlers don't wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

However, reptiles such as snakes, lizards and turtles - along with chicks and young birds - are particularly likely to harbor salmonella, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends hand-washing after touching a reptile or bird.

The lawsuit states Trevor was "allowed and encouraged" by a Serpent Safari employee to pet the snake when he visited the facility Dec. 14, 2007. Trevor was 2 at the time.

On Dec. 17, 2007, Trevor was taken to Centegra Hospital-McHenry and diagnosed with salmonella, says the suit. Penoyer, who was "actively involved" in Trevor's care, also purportedly contracted salmonella after the Serpent Safari visit.

Serpent Safari's lack of sanitizer or signs noting the need for hand-washing after coming in contact with reptiles amounted to negligence, the complaint alleges. More than $50,000 in damages are sought from the business.

Penoyer suffered "severe and permanent illness and/or injuries, externally and internally," says the suit. The complaint states Trevor's hospital expenses and other medical care will require his mother to pay large sums of money.