Petting-Zoo Animals & How to Befriend Them

BY: Andy Seifert |Mar 31, 2017

The next time you or your kids encounter the goats, sheep, or llamas at a petting zoo, wouldn't you like to know how to make them happy—or at least how to not spook them? Since kids (and most adults) don't quite understand animal behavior enough to guarantee a playful interaction, we spoke with John Gramieri, general curator at Austin Zoo, to get some guidance.

With his more than 40 years in the zoo business, Gramieri has seen plenty of encounters between kids and petting-zoo animals. At the Austin Zoo, guests walk along a path adjacent to an enclosed area that's home to sheep, goats, llamas, and deer, allowing them to reach over the fence to pet and feed the animals. There are also free-roaming peacocks and guinea fowl that guests can interact with. He offered these four tips:

Approach Them Slowly

The expert says: "The best way to make these petting-zoo experiences positive, is to move very slowly and gently, as if you were approaching a small child that you don't know. Get down low and move quietly, speak softly, and try to befriend them, as opposed to forcing yourself upon them."

This tip directly addresses what Gramieri calls the number-one thing not to do: running towards the animal. Kids can get excited when they first see the animals, but it's important to make sure they calm down and walk slowly.

"[The animals] want to interact with people," Gramieri says. "But they don't want to act with anything that seems to pursue them."

Feed Them with an Open Palm

The expert says: "Offer them food in an open palm, palm up, so that the animal can take the food from your palm, as oppposed to trying to extract it from your thumb and forefinger, where they might inadvertently nibble you."

Offering the animal food is the easiest way to get them to like you (food is a "very powerful persuader," Gramieri says). But you should do it correctly, and oftentimes kids are doing it wrong.

"What kids tends to do is pick up a little pellet and hold it between their index finger and their thumb," he says. "Well, if the animal wants it really badly, they're going to accidently bite your fingers."

Don't Grab or Pull—Pet or Brush Instead

The expert says: "Probably the best way to be unfriendly toward a goat is to grab its horn and hold it, even for a brief amount of time. It does not like that."

The rule doesn't just apply to goats—who might pin your hands against the mesh of your enclosure if you mess with their horns—but also to pulling on any animals' ears or tails. Instead, offer them the back your hand and let them sniff it. Once they do, gently pet them and figure out what they like: maybe it's to be patted on the shoulder, or maybe it's to have their back scratched. And if the petting zoo offers brushes, use them.

"I think that's a really positive thing," Gramieri says about using brushes. "If a kid can take a brush and brush a goat or a sheep, the animals seem to love it. They enjoy getting a grooming experience from the guest."

Stay Clean & Sanitized

The expert says: "Getting sick from a petting-zoo experience is not going to create a positive memory . . . The rule of thumb we use is: Can you rationalize with a child enough that they will not pull their fingers in their mouths? If they're too young to not do that, then they're probably too young to be in a petting-zoo situation."

No, the animal won't know or care if you washed your hands. But if your kid gets sick from a trip to the petting zoo, they probably aren't going to want to go back. That makes being mindful of sanitation the "most-important thing" in Gramieri's mind.

"You want to be able to clean your hands the moment you get out of a petting-zoo situation," he says. "Be prepared to do that, make it your number-one priority."