When fairgoers aren’t satisfied with seeing cows, pigs, horses, chickens and rabbits, they can go down McKinney Boulevard and see the exotic animal petting zoo that’s set up right between the dairy barns and cattle barns near the Sixteenth Street entrance.
Hedrick’s is owned and operated by Sondra and Joe Hedrick, of Nickerson, Kan. The Hedricks have been running an Exotic Animal Farm along with a bed and breakfast and the touring petting zoo for 35 years. Before he and Sondra became teachers, Joe was a former rodeo clown who greatly enjoyed exotic animals and started Hedrick Farm with his family.
“We have three different traveling zoos,” Sondra said. “We stay mostly in the Midwest, but we had a petting zoo in Hawaii this summer, we go up to West Virginia and Texas. We go all over.”
Hedrick Farm started with American bison and has expanded over the years to include everything from zebras and zedonks (the offspring of a male zebra and female donkey) to kangaroos, water buffalo, camels and goats. All the display animals live under a big tent that shades them during the day. They have separate cages that don’t contain more than two separate species at a time. The whole operation is run by 10 to 15 workers.
“I love the people I work with,” said Aladeen Stoll, of Chanute, Kan. “I love the camels, too. You don’t get the chance as a regular rural Kansas kid to do this kind of thing.”
Along with the petting zoo, the Hedrick Farm crew also runs a camel riding operation and a pig run that has themed races with four pigs on a short track four times a day right down the road from the petting zoo. The whole operation, including more than a dozen different species of animals along with their feed and bedding, can be transported by trailer on the road. With three different parts running in the fair, Hedrick Farm workers can see some different reactions.
“Last year it was people saying the ‘Humpdaaaay’ thing around the camels,” Stoll said. “We still hear it now, but it was 15 or 20 times a day last year.”
The mild weather over the opening few days has made work much easier for the Hedrick family and their employees, because it allows customers to feel more comfortable and stay longer. They sell small cups of feed for $1 but, because the petting zoo is sponsored, they don’t have to charge fairgoers directly to look at and pet the animals.
“I probably like the zebra most of all,” said Kyle Bly, of Independence. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done that. It felt different than I thought it would.”
The petting zoo tends to be busiest during the middle of the day, but toward the end the lower temperature can allow people to see the animals once the lights under the tent are turned on. Visitors can even see new baby goats that were born Sunday in the goat pen. From kangaroos to a porcupine to African tortoises and newborns, there is a lot going on under a small tent by the dairy barns.