Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: Meet the animals

His name is Stretch. He is a 15-foot-tall giraffe. And if you’re not careful, he’ll steal your hat and sunglasses while you’re trying to pet or feed him or give him kisses.

Stretch lived in a small barn in Ohio and was used for promotional videos and photography before he got too big and was moved to Aloha Safari Zoo in Cameron.

Just a word of warning from 8-year-old Ryan Sinor of Fayetteville, who fed Stretch carrots by hand: It can be a little slimy.

“It was slick,” Ryan said.

Still, such experiences, along with affordability ($12 for everyone over 2), are what make small zoos and farms worth a visit. Facilities such as Aloha, Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk and Winterpast Farm in Wake Forest offer an opportunity to get a little closer and connect with animals by holding a guinea pig, petting a baby goat or learning about the fine fiber produced by an alpaca.

“It’s amazing,” said Lauren Updyke of Cary, who was visiting Aloha with her son Ryan. “You can get up close, feed them. You learn more about their history, and it seems pretty intimate.

“And you get to kiss the giraffe.”

Aloha Safari Zoo owner Lee Crutchfield’s road to housing 436 animals on his property at 159 Mini Lane traces back to a capuchin monkey he received as a gift in the 1990s. Crutchfield, who also raises and trains miniature horses, spent two weeks in Las Vegas working with trainers before bringing the monkey home.

At home, though, the monkey continued to be the wild animal that he was, and Crutchfield started looking for a new home.

After being appalled by the conditions of the sanctuaries he explored, Crutchfield decided make room on his farm for discarded animals. He took in animals from closing zoos, bought exotic animals before they reached hunting ranches and took in wolves, a bear and tigers. He opened to the public in 2010.

The zoo, along with other facilities across the state that exhibit exotic animals, is inspected annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To review reports on Aloha and other facilities go to

Aloha Safari Zoo visitors will find Bengal tigers, a grizzly bear and spider monkeys.

“We pretty much take in anything and everything that was neglected, rejected,” said Kristen Moore, Aloha’s exotic animal care manager. “Anything that just needs a home.”

Peacocks also wander the property, along with a pig named Molly.

At one time, Molly was tied to a tree with a rope. As she grew the rope did not. It became embedded in her neck and had to be surgically removed. So when she came to Aloha, “we told her we would never tie her up again,” Moore said.

The zoo offers “keeper talks” where people will have a chance to pet reptiles, skunks, goats and pigs.

Visitors can also take a 20-minute guided ride around a back pasture and throw some bread to a variety of mainly hoofed animals.

“To the right you will see some of the llamas and alpacas,” said tour guide Katie Talton. “Llamas are taller with the flat back, whereas alpacas are shorter with a rounded back. If any of them decide to spit at you, please don’t use your child as a shield. Use your neighbor’s child instead.” 

Open during the summer Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Starting Sept. 6, open only Saturdays and Sundays through May. Information, or 919-770-7109

Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

Winterpast Farm, Wake Forest

Mary Droessler doesn’t know how many animals she houses on Winterpast Farm. “I always tell kids they are welcome to count them, and if I knew the number I would be tired,” said Droessler, aka Farmer Mary. She has two miniature donkeys that came to the farm after a 4-H organization shut down, a miniature horse that came via the SPCA from a hoarding situation, lots of sheep and goats and tons of chickens. Droessler bought the 10-acre farm about 15 years ago as a divorce present to herself and opened it to the public about 10 years ago. There are also ducks that a photographer used for Easter photography but didn’t want afterward, a peacock that just showed up at someone’s house, a sheep that was moved after all his friends were eaten by coyotes and a ram that turned the wrong color at a fiber farm. “Every animal here has their story,” she said. New visitors are typically met by Droessler, who shows them how to drop their money in the bucket and open the gate. Then they grab a bucket with food they bring or buy there and can walk around and feed animals in a fenced area. “Every day is a little bit different,” Droessler said, depending on what animals are born or dropped off. The experience includes education about the animals, where they came from and how to hold them. “If you want to sit and hold animals, you have to start with a guinea pig first,” she said. “I call it passing the guinea pig test.” Hours vary. Visitors should check the website at Admission is $10 per person. 12936 Ghoston Road, Wake Forest, 919-244-1800.

Western North Carolina Nature Center, Asheville

A visit to the Western North Carolina Nature Center is an opportunity to experience animals and habitats of the Southern Appalachians. The 40-acre facility has more than 60 species, including river otters, black bears, red wolves and cougars. For 50 years, the facility was a zoo housing exotic animals. In the 1970s, it became the WNC Nature Center, home to an estimated 140 animals – all native to the Appalachian ecosystem. The center, operated by the city of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department, promotes environmental education, animal awareness and conservation for Asheville and surrounding communities. “A lot of our efforts go into our community, giving them the knowledge how to live successfully with wildlife in our backyards,” said Keith Mastin, the center’s curator of education. Animals come to the center because they’re not releasable due to injuries, or because they were orphaned, Mastin said. The museum typically holds two educational programs at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., which could include an otter feeding or educational and visual activities with other animals. The river otters are the most popular exhibit, Mastin said. “And then our cougars are also a huge hit,” he said. “Two brothers that came from the West Coast who were orphaned and now thrive happily together here at the center.” Open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors 65 and over; $6.95 for ages 3 to 15; 2 years and younger are free. 75 Gashes Creek Road, 828-259-8080.

Apple Hill Farm, Banner Elk

Apple Hill Farm started in 2003 with chickens and alpacas. “And then we had a crazy next year where we brought on goats and llamas and donkey and a horse,” farm founder Lee Rankin said. Rankin moved to her more-than-40-acre farm from Louisville, Ky., with her 2-year-old son to start an alpaca farm after seeing one of the animals and thinking “this is the coolest animal I have ever seen.” Now the farm includes 21 alpacas, 24 goats, two llamas, two horses, seven donkeys and two Shetland ponies. They name all of the animals on the farm, except the chickens. “An animal that has a name is loved, I think,” Rankin said.The working farm raises alpacas for their fiber. Alpacas are sheared once a year, the first Saturday in June. The fiber goes to Echoview Fiber Mill in Weaverville and to the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America in Tennessee, a group of farmers who pool their fiber to make products. Angora goats get sheared twice a year, about six months apart. The mohair fiber is made into yarn or sold as locks or raw fiber. Apple Hill Farms sells the fiber products, including an extensive yarn collection, from the farm and elsewhere in its store. The guided walking farm tour is 45 minutes to an hour. Visitors will learn about the farm and its animals, which also includes livestock guardian and greeter dogs. They’ll also learn about Mr. Pickles, a pig that does tricks. “He is sort of a local celebrity,” Rankin said. The farm offers a daily tour from mid-May to mid-October. Tour departs at 2 p.m. 7 days a week, plus an 11 a.m. tour on Saturdays. From mid-October on, the tour is offered at 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission for adults is $12 and $7 for children 4 to 10; free for kids 3 and younger. Address: 400 Apple Hill Road. Phone: 828-963-1662.

Lynnwood Park Zoo, Jacksonville

The Lynnwood Park Zoo has about 250 animals, including wallabies, coatimundis and monkeys. As compelling as those animals are, they aren’t the most popular. “It’s a tortoise by the name of Franklin,” said Gary Evans, director of the 10-acre zoo founded in 1990. “And there is a little silkie chicken.” Sometimes staff will bring those and other critters out so children can get a closer look. Visitors will also find a llama, sheep, emus, foxes, capybaras, hawks and other birds and reptiles, along with pigs and goats. Evans hopes that the experience of seeing and touching the animals will instill a connection with them. “You protect that which you value,” he said. The hawks, owls and vultures come from Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary, a rehabilitation facility in Hubert. Others are surrender animals.“We don’t purchase animals,” he said. Most visits take 90 minutes to two hours. Lynnwood is open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The last ticket is sold at 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are set aside for groups of 20 or more. Lynnwood closes in December, January and February. Admission for 13 and up is $10, 2 to 12 is $8, and kids under 2 get in free. Address: 1071 Wells Road, Jacksonville. Phone: 910-938-5848.

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