By Micah Fern
Some Western Tennessee residents plan to transform their pumpkin farm into an exotic animal petting zoo promising over 14 different species.
Alan and Jennifer Shirley are landfill owners in Obion County who have been using part of their land as a pumpkin farm for years. With business growing and 10,000 visitors to the farm last year, the Shirleys decided to step up the attractions.
After four years of collecting exotic animals, the couple will be ready to share their special pets with those visiting the farm this September.
“It all started with a camel,” Jennifer Shirley said, but it did not stop there. The Shirleys are in the rare group of exotic pet owners. Knock on their door and you will most likely be greeted by Bugsy, their friendly and overly curious ring-tailed lemur.
Visiting other sections of the farm will reveal cages and pens housing mini-donkeys, zedonk, a dwarf horse, yaks, zebus, peacocks, wallaroos, coatimundis, fennec foxes, porcupines, snow macaques and other animals — all of which were ordered from catalogs or bought from other owners.
“I love my babies, they show me unconditional love, and you bet there is never a dull moment,” said Jennifer said.
It is a costly undertaking; food for all the animals costs $200 a week. The Shirleys said they hope to close their landfill soon and show the animals full-time.
Owning exotic pets can be looked down upon because many irresponsible owners dump their pets in the woods when they grow too large or too expensive to feed. For example, pythons overrunning the Everglades are the results of irresponsible owners.
The Shirleys are an exception, but they caution that owning exotic pets is a lot of hard work and not a task for everyone.
“It’s a hobby that you have to tend to 24/7, 365 days,” Jennifer said.
She does all the primary care for taking care of “her babies” and even learned to doctor them herself due to veterinarians shying away from such exotic animals. The knowledge she has about caring for the animals has come from the Internet and a large web of friends from all over the country who also own exotic pets.
All the animals living at the farm were bottle-fed from infancy, even the porcupine, which involved some thick leather gloves.
Jennifer Shirley’s children joke with their mother that this is part of the empty-nest syndrome, but her love for these animals is genuine.
Her favorite pet is Bell, her African serval, which is called the “small cheetah” by the kids who visit the farm.