Starting your own Petting Zoo Business
When I moved out to the country my wife and I thought running a petting zoo would be a terrific idea. Although we decided just to have a hobby farm, we did learn a lot about starting a petting zoo, and visited many in the process.
Thoughts Before You Begin
Before you launch into a venture like this please consider all the pitfalls specific to having a petting zoo. There are some big potentials for problems, the first being liability. Insurance for Petting Zoos is high, some times you can get lower insurance by looking out of state or province. Some people who run petting zoos do not insure beyond farm insurance and have waivers against lawsuits and hope the waiver will be a deterrent.
The next potential for problems is unruly children chasing and harassing the animals, and parents who find this “cute”. I suggest you have signs and point out right from the start that chasing animals will not be tolerated.
Beware of “Animal Rights” activists who may not consider what you are doing to be fair to the animals. This is particularly true if you have a sick or injured animal and they are able to photograph it and may want to slander your farm for cruelty. If you have any sick or injured animals, keep them 100% away from public viewing, and get them proper veterinary attention.
Another risk is people coming to your farm and bringing diseases. As such you will want to ask visitors if they have been to another farm recently, or if they own any livestock. Having them wash their hands before visting your animals, and stepping through a shallow tray filled with bleach will help reduce risk to your animals.
Because having a Petting Zoo involves live animals, there will be times when you are working many extra hours caring for your animals. Be prepared for this, as keeping livestock is generally an every day job even if you don't have customers.
Before you go further you will need to check zoning laws and learn more about the legalities of having such a business where you live. You might need your neighbors permission.
Land and Building Needs
I would not even suggest you start this kind of a venture unless you have at least 10 acres, but not all of it has to be devoted to the petting zoo, some should just be places for the animals to be left alone. Depending on the number of animals, and species, you may require more land simply to meet their needs. If you want to grow your own food, and bedding (hay, oats, straw), you certainly will need more land.
You will need multiple small pens set up to house the actual animals while the people can visit. Some shade is required as well, for the animals and people, if you have a covered venue, your visitors can come regardless of rain or poor weather conditions.
A bathroom is a must, this can even be a portable unit you rent, otherwise people will be asking to use the bathroom in your home. Another requirement is a place for people to wash their hands. In some areas, both these things are required by law. There are portable sinks you can have with a hose attached and be sure to provide soap.
You are better off to have at least two barns, neither of which has to be fancy. I suggest you keep one barn off limits to the public, use it as a place for sick, injured, stressed, and very young animals, as well this works for a good holding area for new animals. Another barn with stalls is a good idea for the public to view animals from the alley way.
You will need to have several pens or enclosures for the variety of animals you wish to have. Make sure your fencing is safe, no nails poking out, and so on (not just to avoid injury to the animals, but to your visitors too). Provide several garbage bins for people to discard their litter, I suggest a special bin for recyclable pop cans or water bottles. Make sure all gates have good latches on them.
Ideally you do not want any barbed wire fences in areas open to the public.
You should also have sitting areas, such as a picnic area.
In order for your petting zoo to attract visitors, you need to have a variety of friendly animals, and some of the rarer types. If you ever have a mean or dangerous animal, get rid of it quickly.
For many species of animal, neutered males are the gentlest, as well, animals who were bottle fed as babies are going to be more friendly than ones who were not.
If you are buying adult animals, buy from a reputable seller, rather than unknown animals at auctions, unless you are merely using these to increase your numbers and raise you new young animals.
Mother animals with young off spring may be dangerous. People should never be allowed in pens where mothers are with their young ones.
You will need a variety of chickens, and other birds. Select your breeds according to temperament. Include the novelty chickens such as Silkies. Doves, novelty pigeons, and ducks are other good bird ideas. Those animals who were pets before hand, will make better additions to your petting farm.
Plan on having some Rabbits. Some petting zoos sell the offspring of their rabbits, but use caution about allowing uncontrolled breeding or you may find you have more animals than you can find homes for. Other small caged animals, such as snakes, guinea pigs and hedgehogs, may be kept, but their needs for a warm environment might be tricky to meet in a barn setting.
Pot Bellied Pigs are a good idea, and you may find that one is enough. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, so the more you have, the more work you will be doing keeping them happy. They are not an animal that requires companionship of the same species, so I honestly recommend only one or two Pigs.
Sheep and goats both do better in pairs or more, as they are herd animals. There are many different breeds of sheep and goats, I suggest you have at least 3 kinds of each, and with sheep, make sure you select some hair sheep, such as Barbado or Katahdin, as they are a novelty most people have not even heard of. With goats, you will want some pygmy as well as the larger Boer goats. Many petting farms have at least four or more of each species, and one breeding male, as such they always have young animals in the spring and can keep some, and sell others. As I said before, bottle fed animals are more friendly so you should select these as your starting animals.
You will need some larger animals too, such as horses, donkeys and/or cattle. To save space, and add a “cute” factor, I suggest you look for miniature horses, donkeys and cattle. Stay away from stallions, as they often bite. You will also want a llama or alpaca, both of which make excellent guard animals for the sheep or goats. Contrary to popular belief, not all llamas or alpacas spit, a friendly animal will not spit unless it feels threated.
Other animals, such as Wallabies, should be considered depending on what is in your area. Always check laws too, as some animals are not legal in some areas, or may need special permits. Never get an animal you cannot provide proper care for.
You will be mostly catering to families, so you need to be very kid friendly as well as able to communicate to adults. You will need to establish boundaries about time of the visit and where people can and cannot go. You will need to make sure you are able to enforce these boundaries. You must be able to say to people “I am sorry, but you will have to control your child or I will have to ask you to leave.”. Make sure you have good signs indicating what areas are off limits, I suggest you do not allow people to wander on their own, but should stick together with you.
You may find that people ask you to do more than you thought you would be doing, as such they may want you to host Birthday Parties, or bring your animals to a school for a visit. Consider what you will and will not do, and the legalities involved.
Consider what you will charge - phone around and ask what other petting zoos charge. You do not want to be too far out of line with them, neither cheaper, nor more expensive.
Good Luck with your venture, please read some of my other animal links for help with care on the various animals suggested in this article.