Columbia- Sandra Smith stood under a red-and-white tent Thursday afternoon that housed a petting zoo at the Boone County Fair.
The hay-filled, white cages that surrounded her held some unexpected creatures, such as Bendy the kangaroo, Mowgli the 70-year-old tortoise and an emu that preferred the company of goats.
“Just take my purse,” Smith joked to Joe Hedrick as she handed him another dollar for a Dixie cup full of feed. Smith was answering to the desire of her 2-year-old son, Tavian Rowles, who wanted to feed the 10-foot-tall, 10-month-old giraffe, but who couldn’t quite get the courage to actually feed it.
“He wanted to see the giraffe all day,” Smith said as Tavian continued to point at the giraffe. “He’s going to be disappointed when he goes home and watches the ‘Lion King.’”
With a boost of confidence from the comfort of his mother’s arms, Tavian tried again, stretching his arm out as far as he could. But he dropped the cup just before the giraffe could get a taste.
“We’re going to need a chair,” Smith said. She headed back to the entrance of the petting zoo and handed Hedrick another dollar.
Hedrick brought his menagerie of exotic animals to the Boone County Fair for the first time this year, and families such as Smith’s are the reason why.
“It’s about the people’s reaction. I love animals, and I love people, so I put them in the same package,” he said as he watched people funnel in and out of the tent, welcoming and joking with each one. “Parents have as much fun as the kids.”
Hedrick’s father instilled a passion for animals in his son.
“My dad was a rodeo clown, so I just grew up around trained animals,” Hedrick said. Training horses turned into training buffaloes and, before long, he had a chimpanzee and a zebra.
After seeing how the public interacted with the animals more than 30 years ago, Hedrick started buying animals from zoos to start his own farm in Nickerson, Kan.
“For the last 20 years we’ve been raising our own animals,” he said.
The brood living on the 2,000-acre Hedrick Exotic Animal Farm now includes 10 giraffes, 12 bongo antelopes and two herds of zebras and requires a full-time staff of more than 40 workers and a veterinarian who’s on call 24-hours a day. Three units of Hedrick’s workers take the animals across the country.
Hedrick’s petting zoos have been to 16 state fairs, visited Hawaii three times and were in New York’s Madison Square Garden earlier this summer.
But even after visiting such enormous venues, he looks forward to smaller events such as the Boone County Fair.
“I see big athletes, and it’s like they don’t have any roots,” Hedrick said. “County fairs are where I started.”
And it’s the experience he can give people that keeps him going.
“I see people coming in with somber faces, thinking about their problems,” he said. “But then you see them come out the exit, and they’re just smiling. It’s therapy for people.”
Animals at Hedrick’s petting zoo
African Spur-Thigh Desert Turtle
Indu-Brazilian and Miniature Zebu
What is a zebu?
Zebu are cattle that originated in India and were later introduced into the U.S. They are thought to be the world’s oldest domesticated cattle and are now often interbred with other cattle breeds.
Scottish Highland Cattle
What is an eland?
An eland is the largest breed of antelope. They are typically found in the open plains or lightly wooded areas of Central and South Africa.
Jacob 4-horned sheep
What is a cavy?
A Patagonian cavy is a rodent of Argentina that has long ears and thin legs. Cavies can grow to be 30 inches in length and weigh 30 pounds.