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? Us too! But since kids (and most adults) don't quite understand animal behavior enough to guarantee a playful interaction, we decided to turn to the experts. Below, we picked the brains of Stephanie Polson—farmyard manager at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois—and John Gramieri—general curator at the Austin Zoo—to get some guidance.
Based on their advice, we put together this handy list of what to do (and not do) when you're trying to make some furry new friends.
Be sure you’ve got sunscreen, umbrellas, sunglasses, and extra layers. According to Polson, “Many zoos are outdoors and exposed to the elements, and sometimes the weatherman's prediction isn't quite right.”
One can’t-miss item? “Extra shoes! It's impossible to keep petting pens, where you can walk inside with the animals, completely free of poop.”
Many a parent has taken their child to a petting zoo only to wonder why he or she is suddenly acting shy. Some animals’ sheer sizes—think horses and cows—startle and intimidate even adults, so it’s good to consider how large they must appear to little ones.
Polson also points out that they look weird. “Sheep and goats have irises that are oval in shape. Some people find this characteristic very unnerving the first time they see it.”
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."
Polson agrees with that sentiment. “Make sure an animal sees and hears you before you touch it,” she adds. “They can get startled.”
And if you spot an animal snoozing, leave it be. “They might be in a deep sleep and awaken very startled, and unintentionally cause harm by trying to get up and move away quickly."
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.
"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."
You might become a regular Dr. Dolittle with this secret trick. “The vast majority [of animals] like shoulder scratches,” Polson says. “That's a tough spot for [them].” Bonus tip: most animals don’t like being touched on their faces.
Another thing they don't like? Being pulled. "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," says Gramieri.
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 the animal 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
“Pay attention to an animal's eyes, ears, and hair,” Polson says. “When an animal pins its ears back against its head, it's best to move away. In addition, the hair along a goat's back and neck will stand straight up, just like a cat, when it is upset. Sheep will back up and paw at the ground.”
Some zoos offer animal food for purchase or for free, whereas others give specific guidelines on what’s appropriate to bring for the animals. “All animals in zoos are on special diets,” Polson stresses.
If you do happen to give an animal something it shouldn’t eat, no matter how small or harmless you might think it is, let the staff know. No animals—even goats—eat rocks or garbage, so keep both out of their pens.
The content in this article was originally written by Andy Seifert and Aimee Alker. It has since been edited and condensed.