Under Your Nose: Walk With (and Feed) the Animals in Leesburg

Park Has Plenty for Children and Adults, Too

Posted June 27, 2007 at 4:35pm

Ice cream cones are in high demand during the summer months, but at the Leesburg Animal Park they’re always in season — and filled with a different kind of tasty treat.

Not tasty in terms of human consumption, though. [IMGCAP(1)]

Rather, the cones are filled with food for your furry, four-legged friends at the park in Leesburg, Va., such as llamas, donkeys, goats and deer. And they’ll do almost anything to get your attention.

Upon entering the park you’re handed an ice cream cone full of animal food and given instructions on which animals you can feed and how to feed them (put the food in the palm of your hand and keep it flat as the animals gobble up the grub). Some are more eager to be fed than others, and you might even get a couple of animals butting each other out of the way to try to get their mouths on the food. And while a good majority of the animals are a decent, non-threatening size, don’t only feed the little guys — the larger animals are just as gentle with their bigger mouths (although they do slobber a bit more).

Before you know it, the food from the cone is gone and you’re popping quarters into the various machines around the park to refill. Near the cash register there are plastic cups and souvenir buckets of food available for purchase, too. [IMGCAP(2)]

And for those germophobes out there, you can rest easy. Purell dispensers are littered throughout the park for a quick way to sanitize, and a utility sink is located next to the concession stand near the gift shop.

Originally the park opened in 1976 in Reston, Va. Robert Johnson, who co-owns the park with his wife, Shirley, said in the beginning they “started with mostly goats, pigs and cows. Domestic stuff. Then it grew to zebras and bison and elk and grazing animals.” In 1999 the Johnsons moved the farm to its current Leesburg location, and they bought the land in 2004. The park today still has many of the domestic animals it originally started with, along with some more exotic offerings such as white tigers, serval cats and Aldabra tortoises. The Aldabra tortoise is one of the largest tortoises and is among the longest-living animals in the world. The animal park features two tortoises: Jethro, who weighs about 450 pounds and is around 80 years old, and Jade, who’s 250 pounds and around 40 years old.

“The tortoises came … from the Bronx Zoo from a guy we knew back in the early ’70s,” Johnson said, joking that today some rarer animals probably could be found on Craigslist. He said over the years “you just get to know people, trade people. ‘Hey, I’d like that turtle, I’ll give you 50 goats for him.’”

The latest addition to the park are two white tigers, which Johnson said are about a year and a half old. He said some more staffers might have to be added to the current payroll of about 12 because the tigers will need more care. “One [tiger] you could go in with by yourself,” Johnson said. “Two people are going to be working with the tigers, and hopefully we’ll be breeding tigers next year.”

The tigers, turtles and a handful of other animals are off-limits for play and feeding. But don’t worry, there are plenty of other hands-on activities.

Once you go through a good amount of animal feed, take a break to watch children enjoy the pony rides (which are offered for an additional $3) or take a wagon ride around the park and down to the pond. There’s also a playground nearby, which is great, but not nearly as fun as playing with the animals.

But don’t be fooled by all this talk of pony rides and playgrounds — the animal park is fun for all ages. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the park is the “contact area.” It’s a huge, fenced-in grassy area where goats, donkeys and other animals roam free, and you can get right in there with them. Word of warning, though: Don’t go in empty-handed. You’re sure to be a crowd-pleaser in the contact area if you come bearing food. There’s nothing like numerous animals competing for the food in your hand, jumping up playfully on your leg. On a recent visit Under Your Nose was quite partial to a small brown goat who’s about two months old and nicknamed Trouble because “he’s an instigator,” one of the employees said. Trouble’s size worked against him, however; every time someone tried to feed him, a bigger goat would come by and push him out of the way.

The friendly staff is more than happy to answer questions about the animals, and the friendly animals are more than happy to soak up your attention … and eat your food.