First of all, this is not a story about Topsy the Elephant, or Monroe the Buffalo, or Mario the Chimp, who were shipped off to circuses and zoos when the Pet-a-Pet Farm near Reston went out of business two years ago.
This time we introduce Barney the Scarlet Macaw and Patti the Spotted Donkey and Homer and Jethro the Aldabra Tortoises, who never went anywere. Herein begins a happier tale.
The former petting farm reopered this spring as the Pet Farm Park. The location is the same, 1228 Hunter Mill Road just off Leesburg Pike, but most of the faces are different.
Except for Barney and Patti and Homer and Jethro, the menagerie of 200 is new and just as enticingly touchable.
Well, visitors might want to keep their finger out of the baby bobcats' cage, but to Mrk Smith, the director, who has raised them on bottles, they are simply cuddly cats. The king vultures from South America stay out of reach on their 20-foot high perches, but the just-hatched chickens can be stroked -- as long as you don't squeeze them.
Two years ago, Smith was brought in by the former owners to close down the park -- and get rid of all the animals by shipping them off to zoos, wildlife preserves or other suitable homes.
But almost as soon as Topsy the Elephant, the undisputed star of the old pet farm, lumbered aboard a truck bound for the Northwest, Smith began having second thoughts about the dismantling job.
So for most of the last two years, Smith has been trying to scrape together enough cash to reestablish unusual wildlife park. After all, says Smith, it's the closest thing to a barnyard many suburban kids have ever seen and adults en route to their concrete cages in downtown Washington slow down in envy at the elk freely roaming the 60-acre range.
Smith finally succeeded a few months ago and began collecting the yak, Fallow dee, llamas and other creatures on purchases and loans from zoos and wildlife parks as well as donations from farmers and humane societies. He is now a partner in a new corporation, whose initial costs were financed by Robert Johnson, a Loudoun County businessman.
"I like wild things," said Smith, 25, who grew up on a horse farm in Maryland.
"I like to see them in the wild," he added, bumping across the elk and door range in a small truck. "There aren't that many wild places anymore. If this farm weren't here, there'd be condominiums. The animals' natural habitat is being destroyed daily."
Smith's enthusiasm never seems to wane.
"Look at the velvet racks," he said, pointed to the four-foot spread of velour antlers on the elk. "Aren't they impressive?"
Ironically, Smith received his call to the wild from his college biology lab partner.
"I hate this," the friend said after endlessly staring at miniature critters under the microscope. "Just once I'd like to say, 'There goes that son of a bitch, knocking down trees!'"
With that inspiration, and after a stint in the Peace Crops, Smith began his zoo career at the Largo Wildfire Preserve and the Salisbury Zoo.
Although the Pet Farm Park resumbles the animals' natural habitat, most of the animals have never lived in the wild. Except for Homer and Jethro, the creatures are all zoo-born, which is just fine with Smith who objects to taking wild creatures from their natural homes.
Some animals are at home in a barnyard, and even the wild animals don't seem to mind the confinement. Three pigs -- Helen, Harriet and Harold -- root in the open barnyard for discarded popcorn, and a nameless goat nuzzles a toddler. Patti the Donkey gets the run of the place. She spent the winter at Smith's house.
When they aren't absorbed in seemingly intimate parlor chatter, gibbons Emmy and Lou may be "whooo-oooooping" at passersby. Emmy is pregnant and Lou is waiting. He fills his time by wowing visitors with seven successive somersaults and arm-over-arm swinging.
Barney, the fire-engine red and turquoise macaw perched in the entry hall, is said to have a vocabulary of 20 words. He seems to get stuck, however, on "Hello, cracker, cracker," at least until he sees Smith, when he explodes with "MAAARK!"
Smith and his staff of 13 spend up to 10 hours daily tending to their pets' needs. Smith always meets new animals at the airport and even looks out for their personal lives. Clark the male Coatimundi, a South American raccoon, will soon be joined by two carefully chosen females. "It's a good ratio," says matchmaker Smith. No kidding.
Smith also trains his pets for stardom. Camille the Camel, on loan from the Catskill Game Park in New York, has appeared in two local productions of "Aida." Her operatic role was to strut across the stage Smith led her.
At Wolftrap, she brought down the house. When the opera moved inside to the Lisner it was a different story; a reviewer said even a camel couldn't have saved the show.
Camille is taking it easy after her brief brush with stardom. She has taken over the job Topsy the Elephant once had, giving rides to kids at the park.
Smith, a member of the Zoological Consortium which manages zoos around the nation, has brought together a staff of five full-time workers and eight part-time employes. The place is clean and free of the worst of barnyard smells, possibly because Scooper the Cow gets constant cleaning.
The previous petting farm failed by losing $100,000 a year. But this time the new managers hope to survive by cutting corners, particularly by borrowing many of the animals from surplus stocks at other facilities. Johnson invested an initial $23,000 to buy out the former petting park. They are leasing the land from the previous owners, but pay only $800 a month, the amount of tax payments, as rent.
Smith, the higest paid staff member, receives $175 a week plus $75 in corporate stock. "Everyone who works here loves animals and is willing to be underpaid," he says.
The staff is careful to protect the animals from the people. Posted rules forbid smoking, running, shouting and teasing. The animals may be fed pellets provided by the staff.
"We like to stress this is their home, and that people are just visiting," said Smith.
Admission is $2.50 for adults and $2 for children. The pet farm is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.