A NEWCOMER TO Northern Virginia driving along the unlikely sounding Baron Cameron Drive might think he'd landed in Puddleby-on-Marsh, home of Dr. Dolittle, when he looked out his window and saw a buffalo calmly chewing on the grass, and along side of that an eland or an elk or a Watusi bull.
In fact, if, like the good doctor, you yearn to talk to the animals, there's no place in the Washington area where they are more accessible than the Pet Farm Park, a mini-zoo that has been a local institution for 15 years.
While the American bison and its friends roam the 70 acres of the park, the farm is filled with a variety of domestic and exotic animals. Fanny Mae, a friendly gibbon, performs acrobatics near her hut at the top of a pole, while the giant tortoises Homer and Jethro lumber nearby and baby goats wobble appealingly over to the visitor.
There are baby rabbits to pet, ducklings and chicks to feed, cows, ponies, donkeys, lambs and llamas. The llamas, who unlike the pushmi-pullyu that made Dr. Dolittle rich and famous do not have two heads, are nevertheless unusual to look at.
"They can be aloof and temperamental," says Shirley Johnson, who runs the park with her husband Bob. "Mostly they are gentle, though, and make good pets."
One of the llamas, Athena, was a Christmas present to Shirley from her husband. "She was a 'bottle baby' when I got her," Shirley said.
Cassidy, a yearling female camel, is also tame and can be petted. Most of the animals can be touched and fed.
"That's how we're different from a regular zoo," says Shirley. "We promote contacts with animals. Once people have touched an animal, they feel much more of a relationship with it."
The Johnsons rent the Farm Park land from Jack Crippen, who used to run Sunrise Dairy Farm in that location.
"Jack always had an interest in exotic animals," says Johnson, "and he kept bringing them into the farm. When the dairy closed, the idea of the park was born and we took it over, although Jack still acquires animals for us, occasionally."
Included in the price of admission to the park is a ride on a haywagon to see the wild animals in the fields. There are also picnic tables and a playground.
Inside the farm, children can queue up for a ride on the small African elephant named Sukara, or one of the ponies. Deer and humans mingle in the deer pen, allowing visitors to come near and offer a snack.
Nearby in the aviary, onlookers wait for the peacocks to display their spectacular plumage. Whether they're willing to preen or not, the peacocks are great to talk and listen to -- like Dr. Dolittle's parrot Polynesia, they have a lot to say.
Monkey island, in the middle of the park, is inhabited by tiny South American squirrel monkeys. They jabber and run and beseech spectators for food.
"They're funny," says Johnson. "They'll put their paws right into the keepers' pockets." Because the little critters bite, the public is not allowed to pet the monkeys.
A Fairfax County ordinance prohibits the pet farm from keeping certain animals beyond the age of six months, says Johnson, "so we tend to raise cubs for other parks, then return them to their original home."
The pet farm also tries to offer some different species every year, she says. "We have had ostriches and emus, wallabies, lions and tiger cubs."
At the moment, the park has nine-week-old Serval kittens -- small lynx-like wild cats -- that will grow to weigh about 25 pounds.
"One of our most popular animals is Sally, the 800-pound sow. People are just fascinated by that big pig," she says.
Children seem to like best the baby goats, with their little wobbly legs and goatees. As friendly as puppies, they all look like walking illustrations of the little Billy Goat Gruff.
Cups of pet food are sold in the barn and the animals always seem to be hungry for it. Visitors are asked to respect the animals and to refrain from running and screaming, but the occasional "loose cannon" toddler doesn't throw anybody.
The park is open April through October, with special events scheduled for each weekend, all included in the admission price. These include story hours, puppet shows, craft-making events (such as a scarecrow workshop in October), animal shows and one-time activities such as shearing the sheep and watching weavers spin it into wool.
For a fee, the park offers the Learning Safari, a classroom animal presentation to area schools. Animal rentals are also available.
The Johnsons are parents of three school-age children, who necessarily spend lots of time at the park.
"It's not a job where you can lock up at six o'clock, go home, and come back in the morning and have everything look the same," Johnson says. "It's very labor-intensive. But I think it's great for my kids that they get to have so much contact with the animals. They were surprised when they got to school and found out that not everybody has an elephant for a pet." PET FARM PARK --
1228 Hunter Mill Rd., Vienna. 759-3636. Take Route 267 west to Hunter Mill Road, Exit 5. Turn right and drive two miles to park on the left. Open weekdays 10 to 4, weekends 10 to 5. Begininning June 15, open weekdays 10 to 5, weekends 10 to 6. Weekday admission is $5.50 for adults, $4.50 for children and seniors; weekends, $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for children and seniors. Season passes are $25. For a schedule of upcoming weekend events, call 759-6761.
Ann Yost last wrote for Weekend about Washington's Potato Museum.