Idle Hour Ranch sets the exotic animal standard
By Emma Jarman
Photo: Sam the Giraffe playing around
If you get off Interstate 75 at exit 73, just three miles west of Troy, Ohio, you might see a few things. There’s a lot of open space, a few trees, wooden farmhouses, barns and silos dotting the skyline; and a giraffe, poking his head up above the tree line and fences. There aren’t many giraffes in Troy. In fact, there’s only one – Sam, at Idle Hour Ranch, an exotic animal farm in the middle of the countryside. In fact, there are a lot of things one can find at Idle Hour Ranch that are unique to the five acres that house Sam and his friends.
Their mission is simple: “To bring the Bible stories to life as only our special animals can,” reads their extensive website, idle-hourranch.com. Their vision is pure: “To be a tool that the Lord has provided to the Church, that is used to help win souls for God’s kingdom.”
If you’re not religious, however, don’t be put off by the Christian-centric altruism. Aside from the seasonal nativity work the ranch does, a visit to Idle Hour mimics a visit to any other zoo – at least one where you get to touch pretty much everything.
| In the beginning |
Idle Hour Ranch started in 1999. A modest business, they supplied exotic animals to live nativity scenes around Christmas. The family rented camels from a man in Indiana.
Michelle Iddings was an animal coordinator at a Christian Life Center’s live nativity scene; and her husband, Brian Iddings, worked for Delphi for 30 years as an engineer until he was laid off in 2009.
In the beginning, as the story goes, there were three horses and two goats. Then came the donkey. After borrowing animals from local suppliers to furnish the nativities for years, their “donkey guy” suddenly refused to let them borrow his animal for the season.
“But, if I owned a donkey, no one could tell me no,” said Michelle.
So, they bought one for themselves.
The next Christmas, Michelle realized how much she loved one of the pairs of sheep they routinely borrowed, so Brian snuck back out and bought them. The next year, Michelle said, “Well, there’s nothing cuter than a baby camel.” And along came the farm’s first camel. As the farm stands today, there are about 200 animals that call Idle Hour Ranch home.
“There are about 81 to 85 of the four-legged stuff,” said Brian. And he would know. It’s almost impossible for Brian to leave the farm property – not that he has any interest in doing so – because of the amount of care he pours over his animals.
The entire farm spans 80 acres, and Brian knows every inch of it. He knows what the mountain lion, Peshewa, likes to eat and when – it’s Tyson chicken quarters, Mazuri large feline dry food, and Ensure Plus. He knows the exact temperature at which it’s safe to let the giraffe, Sam, and the kangaroos out of their heated barns — it’s 70 degrees. Brian knows to keep the prairie dogs, tortoise and cockatoo put away at night so the hawks don’t get them.
“I’m the one that stays home with the animals,” he boasted. “I hate to be away. I hate to leave for any more than an hour or two because I’m always worried about what’s going on at home.” But Brian doesn’t mind. The satisfaction he gets from his work makes the entire, arduous process worthwhile.
“What I really like is the little kids’ smiles,” he grinned. “I tell people if they’re going to bring their kids, bring them up but don’t tell them we’ve got a giraffe. Then you get to see their faces light up … ‘A GIRAFFE!’”
| The animals |
There isn’t a square foot of Idle Hour Ranch one can stand on without spying some sort of exotic animal. Right inside the front gate, guests are greeted by a mob of kangaroos – that really is what a group of kangaroos is called. Brian handed us a handful of bread and showed us how to hold it up to them. The kangaroos ate the wheat bread from our fingers, lips whispering against our fingertips. We left them relaxing on their sides and leaning back on their tails – which they use as a fifth leg – to make our way over to the bunny pen and past the red foxes pacing their enclosure in anticipation of our approach. The ranch encourages all visitors to touch and feel whatever they can. If there’s an animal you can reach, you can touch it.
“The habitats are all designed so that if you can get in trouble, you can’t get near the animal,” Brian explained. “Anything you can touch, it’s designed that way.”
Continuing deeper into the ranch, we wandered past a pen of New Guinea singing dogs, which don’t bark, but rather harmonize their voices. “These dogs are incredibly unique,” said Brian. “In New Guinea, the native children carry the pups around with them. Here, they require some special housing because they can climb tall fences and will ‘follow their wanderlust’ if they’re off leash.”
The goat ramp towers above us, begging children to put handfuls of feed into the pulley system and ratchet it to the top, coaxing the goats up the ramp system overhead to collect their reward. Peshewa the cougar is busy lounging atop the towering structure in the middle of his enclosure. You can’t touch Peshewa, but he’s a sight to see.
The ranch also houses an eclectic collection of exotic animals including muntjac deer, humpback Indian cattle (zebu), potbelly pigs, water buffalo, emu, fallow deer, Sam the giraffe, elk, yaks, sheep, coyotes, mini horses, a bunny hutch, an aviary that houses peacocks in full plumage, ducks, chickens, pigeons, geese and a rooster who isn’t shy about flexing his vocal chords.
There are a few dogs to be seen trotting around. And if you stick your fingers in the fish pond, the scaly creatures will swim to the surface and nibble your fingertips.
| Controversy |
Not everything at Idle Hour Ranch is as relaxed and smooth-sailing as the animals’ attitudes may portray. It would be remiss to cover an exotic animal farm without addressing the opposition to such establishments.
Few have forgotten the Zanesville, Ohio, man, Terry Thompson, who, back in 2011, reportedly let loose his entire collection of exotic animals from their cages and then proceeded to shoot himself. Police officers responded, combed the area and shot the animals at close range. All of the animals were located, except for one monkey that is believed to have been eaten by one of the larger cats. The incident was devastating for the image of exotic animal farmers, even though Thompson’s family had always claimed their animals were personal pets and not for sale or show, so they would not have been subject to the regulations pertaining to exotic animal dealers or zoos.
Previous to the Zanesville incident, there were regulations on native wild animals (through the Ohio Division of Wildlife); animals used in exhibition or for sale (through the U.S. Department of Agriculture); and animal welfare statutes pertaining to all animals and enforced by the local humane societies. Despite the many regulations already in place at the state level as well as in many individual counties, the Humane Society of the United States claimed Ohio had no regulations on exotic animals; and they successfully lobbied for statewide regulations.
“Ohio passed the new exotic animal ban,” said Brian. “Now, they want our cougar. We’ve had him for 10 years, and he’s doing just fine here – he’s perfect.”
The expense, however, of keeping Peshewa within legal boundaries is becoming staggering.
“We registered him as the state required, and we will attempt to get a permit for him as soon as the permits are available. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep him,” Brian continued, noting all of these measures are costly. “We’ve already paid to have him microchipped. Now, they’re saying the pen’s not big enough, even though it’s bigger than the public zoos require. Ohio says ours has to be bigger than the publicly supported zoos.”
Brian cites a specific group of people responsible for the hardship put upon him and his family and his farm: “It’s the people behind Senate Bill 310.” The bill Brian spoke of severely limits and places restrictive requirements on the possession of “dangerous wild animals and restricted snakes.” Thankfully, Idle Hour Ranch hasn’t been forced to get rid of any of their animals. “Not yet,” said Brian. If forced, they’ll make the cougar pen bigger, but it hasn’t yet come to that.
As far as Terry Thompson and the effect his actions had on Idle Hour, Brian has an opinion of his own.
“We’ve got our own opinion on that, which is shared by a lot of Ohioans. We think [Thompson] may have been set up,” said Brian. “Why would the owner, who has the keys in his pocket, cut his cages open? There’s a lot of stuff that was never made public but was in the autopsy report, and a lot of what we read in the media just doesn’t make sense when you think about it.”
It’s a common misconception that the exotic animal ban was passed as a result of what happened at the Zanesville farm. In reality, Governor Kasich had commissioned a task force to study the issue of exotic animal ownership and make recommendations regarding what if any regulations should be adopted. He commissioned that task force in the spring of 2011 – approximately 6 months before the Zanesville incident occurred. Governor Kasich gave the task force a deadline of November 30, 2011, to submit its recommendations to him. The group was literally days away from submitting the final recommendations when the Zanesville incident took place. The Iddings family is a long-time member of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners (OAAO). Polly Britton, Legislative Agent for the OAAO, was the representative for the exotic animal owners who served on the governor’s task force and kept the Iddings and other OAAO members apprised of what was happening with the Task Force, and later with the legislation and resulting regulations.
| Programs and activities |
There is more to Idle Hour Ranch than a walkabout visit with fancy animals and singing dogs.
The ranch takes donated animals from 4-H kids, which explains why there are some livestock animals mixed in with the other, more exotic, animals on the farm.
“We tell them when we take them in that they’re going to live and die here,” said Brian about the animals brought to him by kids who don’t want their prize stock going to slaughter after the county fairs. “Occasionally, we’ll hear someone say, ‘Hey, that sheep over there looks really bad.’ Well, my grandma looked really bad before she died, too. We make sort of an old folks home for some of the animals.”
There are also pony rides, face painting and a small farm market with animal-made products for sale such as yarn and wool, apparel and gifts, and also food for patrons to feed to the animals as they walk through the ranch. There is a mining sluice for kids to pan for precious stones and the like. This year, a corn maze will be added to the offerings. Idle Hour Ranch offers traveling petting zoos as well, and hosts a great deal of preschools, church groups and field trips on the property. There is also a small children’s play area right in the middle of it all for the youngest animal lovers to bounce around.
“It’s fun,” emphasized Brian. “When the people are here with their big smiles, and they come back and bring their friends, it pumps me up, it’s what keeps us going.”
A visit to the ranch is also a peaceful, relaxing experience. “We’ve actually had people fall asleep in the lounge chairs,” said Brian. Who knows, a visit to Idle Hour may be just the thing to fulfill one or two of the items on your own “bucket list”. It’s close by, in Miami County, and it’s less expensive than the big public zoos. You really ought to come check it out!
Idle Hour Ranch is located at 4845 Fenner Road in Troy. The ranch is open from noon to 6 p.m., Friday through Sunday during the months of June through October. Admission stops at 6 p.m. but there is no real closing time, so visitors are urged to take as much time as they want at the ranch and not feel rushed if they arrive later in the day. Admission for toddlers, two and under, is free; Children, three to 12, is $7; Adults are $10. Weekday group tours are available by appointment only. For more information, visit the website at idle-hourranch.com, email email@example.com or call 937.339.9731 and leave a message.
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com