Hedrick's Educational Petting Zoo brings exotic animals to Boone County Fair

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 | 9:30 p.m. CDT; updated 12:03 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 22, 2010
From left, Abagail Smith, 9, and Joseph Smith, 6, take turns petting the zebra as their father, Davie Smith, watches Wednesday at the Petting Zoo at the Boone County Fair.

COLUMBIA — It’s tough for Joe Hedrick to decide which is his favorite.

Do you go with the Sicilian donkey? Or with the alpaca? What about the miniature zebu?

“It’s like saying, 'Which one’s your favorite child?'” Hedrick said.

Hedrick runs an exotic animal petting zoo at the Boone County Fair, located beneath a red and white tent. Animals include a zebra, a miniature horse, an emu and a Jacob four-horned sheep, among others. Hedrick’s Educational Petting Zoo is open through Sunday; the fair ends July 31.

Hedrick said in his mid-20s, he was a teacher and a rodeo clown — a trade he learned from his father that put him through college. He owned a buffalo, guanaco and chimpanzee, but the purchase of a zebra introduced him to the exotic animal industry.

Now, almost 40 years later, he owns nearly 2,000 animals as part of Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, Kan.

Hedrick’s Promotions, an entertainment affiliate of the farm, brings educational exotic animal exhibits across the country about 11 months a year.

Not every animal gets to travel in an exhibit. Hedrick said the decision depends on the individual animal.

“Not every pot-bellied pig, not every zebra can adjust to road life,” he said. “Animals have different personalities, just like people.”

In addition to the petting zoo, Hedrick’s Promotions also brought pig racing to the fair. Sarah Jessica Porker, Snoop Hoggy Hog, Hammah Montana and others race around a circle wearing numbered banners to cheering fans and a fast-talking announcer. As might be expected, Dale Swinehardt Jr. won a race.

Because of the recent rain, Hedrick said it’s the wettest year he's seen in three years at the Boone County Fair. But the tent’s mud puddles haven't stopped families and adults from visiting the exhibit.

Columbia resident Todd Salazar brought his family to Hedrick's petting zoo Wednesday. His twin daughters, Samantha and Natalie, 4, like Hedrick, had a hard time deciding which was their favorite animal.

“They love this stuff,” Salazar said. “This is a whole new experience for them, being around different types of animals.”

Debbie Ott said she brings her grandchildren to the fair every year, and her granddaughter, Brooklyn VanLoo, 10, of California, Mo., said she was excited because she hadn’t seen most of the animals before.

“The goats bit me, and the llama spit in my hand,” she said. “The zebra was my favorite.”

Despite this being bit and spit on, Brooklyn said she enjoyed feeding them. Fairgoers could purchase $1 and $5 cups of feed to give the animals using a small plastic shovel.

Hedrick said the petting zoo brings part education and part entertainment — he calls it "edutainment."

“Everyone says it’s the neatest thing for little kids, but look at the adults,” he said. “It gives them the opportunity to touch the animals and learn, too.”

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