Why to Think Twice About Starting a Farm Petting Zoo

A farm petting zoo is a big undertaking. Consider this advice before starting one on your farm.

by Sue Weaver
Why to Think Twice About Starting a Farm Petting Zoo - Photo courtesy iStock/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy iStock/Thinkstock

Thinking of starting a petting zoo? A petting zoo can be a lucrative way to bring visitors to your farm, especially if you’re already involved in agritourism or you market farm products directly to customers, but it isn’t right for every entrepreneur.

Animals are unpredictable, and when they interact with people unaccustomed to animals’ behaviors, injuries are bound to occur. On top of that, people are more attuned to zoonoses—diseases passed between animals and humans—than ever before. Running a petting zoo on your farm means you must carry adequate business insurance—and it’s not cheap. You’ll also need extra employees to manage appropriate interaction between animals and visitors and to supervise mandatory post-visit hand washing facilities.

Most people who visit petting zoos expect to interact with baby animals. Many petting-zoo operators buy bottle babies, raise them until their cute factor wanes, and then sell them as meat or pets in favor of a batch of new youngsters, but this practice is unsustainable and seen by many as inhumane. Also, displaying bottle babies works for some species but not others. For instance, the winsome bottle-fed llama or alpaca cria separated from its mother and fussed over by humans will almost certainly develop dangerous behaviors as it matures. There are two ways to handle baby animals into a petting zoo: House baby livestock and poultry with their mothers in well-fenced quarters where visitors can enjoy but not physically interact with or feed them, or use only adult animals in your zoo.

You and your employees must be willing to act assertively to protect your animals at all times. This means laying down rules as visitors arrive and curtailing unruly children whose parents think their chasing and harassing animals is cute. Running a petting zoo is not for the faint of heart.

Still interested? Then here are eight things to keep in mind.

1. Protect Yourself Legally
Before doing anything else, check into licenses and permits you might need to operate a petting zoo on your property. If you plan to feature exotic species, special permits are sure to apply.

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2. Provide Plenty of Room
You’ll need at least 10 acres to allow for parking, seating or picnic areas, concessions, toilets, hand-washing facilities, public areas where guests interact with animals, and areas set apart for animals alone. If you have indoor facilities, like an unused riding arena, available for development, even better. Then you can operate rain or shine.

3. Set Up Boundries
It’s OK to allow poultry and smaller species, like guinea pigs and bunnies, to interact freely with the public, but enclose larger animals in pens where visitors can pet them but not be stepped on or caught in the crossfire between warring animals and accidentally horned, bitten or kicked. Educating the public about farm-animal behaviors and communicating boundary lines can go a long way in keeping both humans and animals safe.

“We do guided tours in groups of 10 and set down very clear rules before even going into the barnyard and we don’t allow certain animals to be petted at all,” say Anne Shroeder, administrator Star Gazing Farm Sanctuary in Boyds, Md. Although the sanctuary doesn’t run a petting zoo, direct supervision of visitors and laying down clear ground rules are good policies for petting zoos to emulate.

4. Keep Mini Animals
Consider featuring miniature animals of larger species. Non-farm folk rarely see miniature cattle, horses or donkeys. These small animal breeds offer the cute factor of baby animals with much less risk.

5. Educate About Farm Animals
“While I understand the desire of children to meet animals, setting something up as a “zoo” and thus “entertainment” gives the wrong message entirely,” says Shroeder, who emphasizes teaching children about compassion toward animals. “Animals are not meant to be entertainment. I think that having a strong educational component is absolutely key if anyone is going to set up such an operation.”

Also, be aware that children tend to come to the farm armed with bread, candy and other unsuitable goodies to feed your animals. Meet each group at the gate and explain why these items aren’t allowed. Explain that farm animals’ diets must be closely regulated and show them what the animals eat. Make it a fun, educational experience so that visitors don’t mind checking treats at the gate.

At the same time, briefly explain animal behavior and warn visitors about the risk of disease or injury. Point out the location of hand-washing facilities and explain that everyone who leaves your facility is expected to use them.

6. Post Signs
Visitors sometimes drift away from their groups or simply don’t pay attention, so make sure the rules are posted loud and clear. Affix signs to individual pens, explaining the species they house and the animals’ names. A handout brochure containing that information is a nice touch, too.

7. Keep It Clean
Keep your facilities as clean as possible and promptly dispose of waste in an area away from the zoo grounds.

8. Have a Plan for Animal Health
If you decide to take on a petting zoo venture, it’s important to keep the animals’ health and safety at the forefront of your operation. This is important not only because you could face the possibility of having your license revoked or animal-advocate backlash, but simply because it’s the humane thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s a common practice among petting-zoo keepers to use baby animals while they’re at the “cute” stage, and then dump them off at a sanctuary or sell them for meat once they’ve “aged.”

“If you must have baby animals, then you need to make a plan for what happens when they get older,” Shroeder says.

Remember, a petting zoo is a way for you to educate the public about the joys and benefits of raising farm animals, but if you’re not setting an example of proper animal husbandry, you’re furthering a culture that supports the mistreatment of animals. Operating a well-run petting zoo is a rewarding way to earn extra farm income while bringing joy to kids and adults who love animals and don’t have the opportunity to interact with them often. To avoid costly mistakes and unnecessary stress and heartache, do your homework before you commit.


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