WALLA WALLA — Petting zoos probably weren’t a big part of county fairs in the past, at least in rural areas where many people had some type of farm animal in their yard or their neighbor’s.
But today, they are a favorite for many fairgoers, especially children, noted Old McDonald’s Farm Superintendent Zenada Voss, who for almost 15 years has taken a week off her regular job to run the fair’s petting zoo.
"I love to expose people to animals who don’t always get to see this stuff," Voss said, while inspecting several stalls that make up the county fair’s petting zoo.
"This is what life used to be like. Everybody used to have some of these animals in their backyard," Voss said, referring to a steer, a mini horse, a goat, two burros, two ducks, two alpacas, seven piglets, a brood of chicks and a staple of the petting zoo, a suckling calf.
"We have them (calves) because they are little and lovable and they will come up and suck on your finger," she said.
But they didn’t always have such an array of barnyard beasts. When Voss took over the superintendent’s position in the mid-1990s, there were piglets, goats or sheep and a calf.
Over the years Voss networked, and by word of mouth she picked up a few more animals that mostly chew the cud.
"It’s for education. It’s for fun," she said.
It’s also a lot of work for Voss, who stays in a trailer at the fairgrounds from opening to closing day.
"This is my vacation," joked the bank teller, who used her paid vacation so she can work here for free.
"We joke that we eat, live and breathe fair for about a week," she said.
She added it’s a year round job.
"We start planning now for next year," she said. But in July is when things get rolling, when Voss begins her litany of phone calls to find out who has what animal available for fair.
And not just any animals; Voss points out these animals must be friendly and want to be petted by humans. But sometimes humans want to do more than pet.
In addition to trying to feed the animals, some humans sometimes try to get their goat.
"We really try to make sure that kids and adults don’t abuse the animals. Part of my problem with the goat is people hit her on the head," she said, noting the culprits are trying to elicit a head-butt reaction.
Even the throng of hundreds of children who come on school day doesn’t frustrate Voss as much as what she calls "stupid people."
"A couple years ago when we had a sow and babies, somebody stole a piglet in the middle of the night," she recalled, adding that the piglet was found wandering along U.S. Highway 12 between here and Dixie.
"We named him Lucky because he was lucky to be alive," she said.
Before fair is over, they will probably have named all the piglets. It’s a tradition.
"We of course had to have a Wilbur," she said. Other names for this year’s piglets include a brown and white piglet named Cookie and a black and white piglet named Oreo.
Voss will come back again to name more piglets next year. Her reason for doing it is so people who don’t normally see farm animals will "get to see that pigs root or that calves suckle."
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.