While Ferris wheels and concerts may attract much of the attention at the Kern County Fair, some four-legged creatures tucked away in small pens have garnered their own following.
“Most children have no access to livestock in their lives,” said Maura Rosie, co-owner of The Great American Petting Zoo, which has been setting up shop at the fair for more than 30 years. “This is maybe the one experience a year where kids can go in one-on-one with some very friendly livestock.”
Although the fair is a top destination for livestock shows for children in Future Farmers of America or 4-H clubs, the petting zoo might be more the speed for suburban kids whose only interaction with animals could be the odd house cat or dog.
“Many of the kids will talk about this all year round,” Rosie added.
The Great American Petting Zoo brings animals from around the world on its tour of county fairs throughout the year.
From chickens and ducks to alpacas and red-necked wallabies, all creatures great and small (or at least a fair approximation of them) show up in the pen.
“It’s something the whole family can enjoy together,” Rosie said.
But caring for those animals isn’t always the easiest.
Employees haul 50-pound bales of perfectly mixed alfalfa and orchard grass. Then there’s all the droppings the animals leave behind that need to be cleaned up.
And some petting zoo employees find that they get along better with the animals than people.
“You have to want to work here,” said Pamela Jaeger, another owner of the petting zoo.
The petting zoo is run by a private company with home bases in southern Oregon and Stephenville, Texas. It started in 1983 as a wildlife park managed by troubled teenagers.
Some of those teenagers grew up to take the petting zoo on the road and now raise their own families as zoo employees.
“It’s had a huge impact on people’s lives,” Jaeger said.
The animals, too, seem to enjoy their social interactions with fair guests. Most of the animals are raised within the petting zoo, so they learn early on how to interact with humans at a young age.
Goats, in particular, tend to take a liking to people, Rosie said. They climb on the visitors who let them do so, and easily approach kids while looking for a bite to eat.
At night, some of the animals go in private pens, but many remain in the open petting area.
They get as much sleep as possible to prepare for the next day at the fair.
The petting zoo has a busy schedule. Before the Kern County Fair, it had appeared at the Tulare fair, and prior at a fair near Seattle.
Wherever it shows up, kids gather around to see and touch the kinds of animals they don’t get to run into during their everyday life.
“You don’t have to have a zebra or a giraffe,” Jaeger said. “The kids just want to be up close.”