POMONA, Calif. (AP) — Sheep and goats may not be known as party animals, but they're increasingly at the center of the celebration as petting zoos grow in popularity for birthdays, graduations and other bashes.
Petting a gentle animal of any kind seems to appeal to young, old and in between. Daycare centers, schools, churches and even nursing homes rent mobile zoos that will bring animals and handlers to them or organize trips to petting zoos.
"You can see the absolute joy as they are sitting there stroking some animal, particularly if it's the first time in their life they have touched one," said Sky Shivers, superintendent of Fairview Farms at the Los Angeles County Fair, 35 miles east of downtown LA. "There is tranquility, an exchange of emotion that's amazing to watch."
Shivers, 63, of Prague, Okla., said a good zoo is as educational as it is entertaining, reeling off several fun facts: baseballs have wool in their cores; doctors use the intestinal lining from some animals to graft serious burns; female goats have beards like males; and while sheep prefer grass to weeds, goats want it the other way around.
Sheep and goats are popular because they only have bottom teeth and are safer around children.
"Ponies and donkeys have teeth on the top and bottom and are more likely to nip fingers," Shivers said. Even so, pony rides are often coupled with petting zoos, and can often be found during the holidays at many pumpkin patches and Christmas sales lots.
Rental fees range from $200 to $325 per hour, depending on the number of animals and the particular business.
The animals run the gamut from tortoises to hares. Some include exotic critters like wallabies and llamas while others offer creatures that can be found closer to home, such as deer and donkeys.
People often like to see babies, so Brendon Kline features baby chicks, ducks and bunnies, small potbellied pigs and a baby goat at Party Animalz Farm in Brogue, Pa.
"A lot of the older people enjoy it as much as the children do," Kline said. "A lot of them grew up on farms and these are animals they don't see every day anymore."
All God's Creatures in Chino Hills, 40 miles east of Los Angeles, features Serenity the silly goose and Goliath, an 80-pound turtle.
Owner Lori Bayour takes the animals on the road to hospices, city neighborhoods, parties and a rodeo.
Faith Lundgren loves to watch her grandson at Bayour's petting zoo each October at the Industry Hills Charity Pro Rodeo.
"The animals don't shy away from the kids at all," Lundgren said. "Sometimes they even make the first move. They enjoy being there as much as the kids enjoy having them."
Not everyone thinks petting zoos are a good thing.
"We think they're a bad idea," said Meredith Turner, spokeswoman for the national advocacy group Farm Sanctuary. "Animals are often not in good health, they're kept in an unnatural environment, and they teach kids that animals exist for our entertainment, when in actuality, they exist for their own reasons."
Animals need to be clean, healthy, gentle and insured. Handlers should provide feed for the animals and clean up after them. Another must is a sanitizing station so those who pet the animals can wash their hands.
A bad experience for a child can last a lifetime.
"You can't leave them alone," Shivers said. "They will get knocked down and scream and cry and be afraid of animals for the rest of their lives."