Talk to the animals Open house: Department of Agriculture activity, petting farms, more offer perfect opportunity to get close to critters.


March 19, 1998|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,Special to the Sun

It was former Gov. William Donald Schaefer who commanded staffers at the Maryland Department of Agriculture to talk to the animals.

Well, that's not exactly how Schaefer said it - though it's easy to imagine the colorful and oft-quoted politico making such a demand. After all, this is the man who as mayor of Baltimore got some of his best press frolicking with some frisky seals at the city's National Aquarium.

Shortly after he was elected governor, Schaefer urged all state agencies to open their offices to the public at least once a year. In the case of the Department of Agriculture, that meant offering taxpayers a chance to get up close and personal with the farm animals over which the agency has jurisdiction.

Now entering its 11th year, the department's open house regularly attracts nearly 7,000 people, spokesman Harold Kanarek said. This year's event - which coincides with the department's 25th anniversary - is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the agency's headquarters at 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway outside Annapolis (410-841-5770).

The free event includes a highly competitive hog-calling contest, a farm-themed puppet show, craft demonstrations and a tour of the agency's facilities. But it's the department's two zoos - a pettable collection of domestic animals borrowed from nearby Anne Arundel County farms for the day and the much less cuddly insect zoo used year-round for research purposes - that bring people back, Kanarek said.

"We have animals of all sizes, from a horse to sheep to rabbits," he explained. Of special note is the beehive-sniffing dog that stops by the open house nearly every year to show off its skills - much to the amazement of those in attendance, Kanarek said.

The department's display is missing only one thing: a cow. Kanarek said while ag officials lament the absence of a resident bovine, there is not enough room to comfortably house the animal.

City dwellers who secretly long to commune with cows in a better setting than driving past a pasture and mooing out the car window can take heart, however. The Central Maryland Research and Education Center's Clarks-ville Facility in Howard County (301-596-9330) allows very limited access to its herd throughout the year.

Bob Kratochvil, center head for the state's Central and Western research centers, said the Howard County center tries to accommodate tour requests from school, Scouting and other youth groups in the limited time slots it has available.

The tour is best suited to children ages 9 or 10 in a group of no

more than 80, Kratochvil said. As a University of Maryland research facility, the center does not employ tour guides or have a visitor's center, instead relying on the kindness of center staff to show people around when they have time.

"When we fill up the few days we allot for these kinds of things, hopefully people understand that too much activity has a negative impact on the integrity of our research," Kratochvil said.

After more than five years of renovations and remodeling, the center is holding an open house and dairy field day - the first in about 20 years - from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 9 to show off its new facilities and its dairy crops research projects. (Reservations must be made through county Cooperative Extension Service offices. There is a nominal charge for lunch.)

Some people prefer to have the animals come to them. Beth Stambaugh's Hodge Podge Portable Petting Farm (410-848-3887) will bring farm animals and a few exotics right to your backyard - provided it's spacious enough to accommodate a variety of creatures.

Stambaugh, who'd heard about portable petting farms from a friend, seized upon the idea after her husband gave her a donkey for Christmas five years ago. "Jerry wanted to know how the donkey was going to earn her keep," Stambaugh laughed. "And even though I teach horseback-riding lessons, I couldn't imagine teaching riding on her."

Stambaugh started out taking Molly, the donkey, to churches for their Palm Sunday processions. But a petting farm has to be more than one animal, and so she began looking for four-footed companions. Julie the pot-bellied pig came next, followed by pygmy goats, Jerry and Judy. The chickens came with the goats. And soon there were sheep and geese, piglets and llamas. Stambaugh's staid horse stables became "Animal Farm" almost overnight. "I turn a lot of the animals loose. I just put bells on them so I know where they are," Stambaugh said, chuckling.

She regularly takes her mobile farm to day-care centers, nursing homes and festivals, charging $190 for two hours in the Carroll County area and $40 per hour more for areas outside Carroll because of the travel time involved. Stambaugh also hires out for birthday parties, though she's very careful where she goes because the animals tend to get stressed in small yards, she said, and their comfort is her first concern.

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