McCreary petting zoo draws world travellers

Debbie and Redg Johnson have been working at turning their petting zoo near Brandon into a must-see attraction in western Manitoba.

Cows, horses and pigs are easy to spot on a drive through Westman. But when it comes to alpacas, donkeys, lambs and other furry friends, Mini Acres Ranch Petting Farm, just north of McCreary on Highway 5, is the place to be.

Debbie and Redg Johnson have been running the petting zoo, located 144 kilometres northeast of Brandon, for several years, but it wasn’t until recently that they’ve been able to devote more of their efforts to making it a must-see attraction in western Manitoba.

The Johnsons are members of the McCreary Ag Society, and while Redg has spent most of his time farming, Debbie Johnson’s love of animals has always been the driving force behind her volunteer work.

“I didn’t want to go to university to be a vet, because that takes too long. So, I just own a variety of animals at the petting zoo that I take care of,” she said.

After the Johnsons moved from their home in McCreary to the countryside two years ago, Johnson has slowly been collecting more animals. Now, her days revolve around caring for her animals and doing chores around the property to ensure the petting zoo is a welcoming, safe place for all visitors.

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The Johnsons’ motley crew of animals include miniature cows that reach only 48 inches high, including three even smaller calves, an Australian lowline bull that is among the smallest breeds of cattle, three llamas, miniature horses, three large horses and a miniature donkey and rabbits. Two pygmy goats, five babydoll sheep, two lambs, some chickens and pigs and a pair of Muscovy ducks round out the group.

American pygmy goats, like the one at the Johnsons’ farm, are small, compact, stocky animals that are descended from the West African dwarf group of goats. Their height at the withers — the highest part of their backs, at the base of their neck and above the shoulders — ranges from 40 to 50 centimetres.

Babydoll sheep, also known as Olde English Southdown sheep, reach a maximum height of around 60 centimetres at the withers. Their trademark woolly, teddy bear-like faces and short legs allow them to do well in small acreages. Both ewes and rams have no horns, and are naturally non-aggressive and gentle.

Muscovy ducks are a large species native to the Americas. The males measure around 76 centimetres and weigh up to 15 pounds. Females are noticeably smaller, and only grow to around six and a half pounds. The birds are predominantly black and white, with iridescent black feathers in males.

Sourcing the animals over the years has been quite the adventure.

“I’m on so many buy and sell groups,” she said. “We went to Saskatchewan to get our mini cows.”

And though she didn’t come from an agricultural background, having been married to a farmer for many years and living in an agricultural community has helped prepare Johnson for her roll as animal caregiver at the petting zoo.

“I started with horses — I had a friend that I’d go riding with. She taught me which side to get on the horse and how to groom them,” she said.

As for which of the zoo’s animal residents Johnson is most fond of, she finds it impossible to say. From the friendly potbelly pigs to the baby animals, all the critters at the farm have distinct temperaments and personalities.

“I love them all.”

So far, the petting zoo has had regular visitors from all around Westman who are eager for an up-closeand- personal experience with the animals at Mini Acres Ranch.

“We have people from Brandon, from Dauphin. We had one gentleman who was an exchange student from Bangladesh,” Johnson said. “We had people from India who are residing in Dauphin, we’ve had people from Knoxville, Tenn., that have family in Dauphin.”

A firm believer in keeping busy with hobbies after retirement, Johnson said looking after her animals keeps her feeling young.

“We’re doing it because it’s fun. We’re not doing it to make money. We don’t make money, because insurance is very expensive,” she said.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. Looking after animals can not only be an exhausting job, but when things go wrong, it can be extremely stressful for both Johnson and her husband, she said.

When a llama was giving birth last year, Johnson knew something was wrong when instead of presenting feet first, the newborn animal presented its head in its mother’s birth canal.

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Full-term pregnancy for a llama lasts 11 and a half months. Up to two to three weeks prior to the due date, signs of the impending birth usually occur, such as the mother’s udder developing. The mother llama may also choose to lay by herself, resting away from the other members of her herd in preparation for the birth of her baby.

“The vet came out and delivered him in the headlights of our pickup truck,” Johnson said. “The baby is very quiet. He’ll come up and give kisses.”

This summer, Johnson hopes even more people will come out to enjoy an experience with the animals at Mini Acres Ranch. She’s currently in talks with school divisions in the area to see if there is any interest in bringing schoolchildren to the petting zoo to interact with the animals.

Mini Acres Petting Farm is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

This story was originally published in The Brandon SunIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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