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The True Tale Behind “Petting Zoo”

If you’ve never experienced the magic of a New England Christmas, I’m sorry. Trust me when I say, there’s a reason the Hallmark Channel set up their unofficial Christmas movie rom com headquarters in downtown Wethersfield, CT. It’s that f’ing magical.

Now I won’t say we were homesick just six weeks after moving to Tampa Bay, but we were definitely missing the quintessential New England Christmas feels and Florida was more than falling flat in that department. We had thought about coming back up to CT to spend the holiday with family, but when the reality hit that we did not have the means to make that happen, we decided to make the best of our first tropical Christmas.

It was early December when my now husband came home from work, excitedly pulling a small piece of paper out of his pocket. “You want to go?” he said as he carefully unfolded the white flyer and handed it to me. In festive red and green text was a very basic ad for a “Very Magical Christmas Petting Zoo in Beautiful Downtown Clearwater” along with a date and time. Magical Christmas Petting Zoo? Are you f*cking kidding me? Of course I wanted to go.

Over the next two weeks I thought about the Very Magical Christmas Petting Zoo in Beautiful Downtown Clearwater. Would there be reindeer? There had to be reindeer. Everyone knew that reindeer were THE official animal of Christmas. You would have been hard pressed to convince me I wasn’t going to be petting reindeer in downtown Clearwater.

When the big day finally came, we were there when it started and sh*t got weird though almost immediately. We parked our car downtown and because there wasn’t any nearby parking we had to walk several blocks to get to the ”Very Magical Christmas Petting Zoo”, which after walking a ways I realized was also weird because it was a beautiful Saturday during prime Christmas shopping season and there was not another soul or car anywhere in the area. Where we even in the right place?

Before I could even ask, just up ahead in an empty lot that seemed oddly out of place, surrounded by six story high rises, and retail shops that appeared occupied by businesses yet all were devoid of life, there was a Christmas display. There was a red wooden fence around the lot and two light poles, almost cartoonish in nature. The lot was filled with brand new pine shavings, giving the entire area a clean almost antiseptic smell. Everything looked brand new. There were hay bales and Christmas lights and little stands selling cocoa and handing out pamphlets (not that I payed any attention to that at this point… hello reindeer…). Nothing was out of place. All the signage and the stands looked as if they had been cookie cut out of some “set up your mall for the best Christmas season ever” sponsored by ‘Pennies’ catalog set up. This was not the normal hodge podge petting zoo set up put on by farmers way more busy taking care of their animals than they were with creating a gram worthy experience (in all fairness, social media was a baby back then)… no this was one hell of a professional looking pop up Christmas experience. Someone had spent some big bucks on this event (despite no sponsors being listed on the flyer).

In the center of the whole thing was a large red and white candy striped tent that resembled something out of a circus if the circus had literally just bought a brand new tent. A professional sign advertised “Petting Zoo Entrance” and that was it… I made a bee line for that sign. When I made it to the tent I realized there would be no reindeer and although you may be thinking… ”well that sucks…” I can tell you I was not disappointed. In the middle of that clean pine filled circus tent was a large stack of hay bales covered in goats. Lots of goats. There was also a donkey, two large potbellied pigs, a small gaggle of geese, a turkey tom and his hen, a f*cking peacock i sh*t you not, four chickens and a rooster, at least six guinea pigs though there may have been more, a half a dozen ducks and quite a few fuzzy yellow chicks, at least a dozen rabbits in varying sizes and colors, a baby cow drinking a bottle, and a few tortoises milling about, not even mildly interested in their bizarre pen mates.

Now I am not going to tell you that I am some big shot animal husbandry expert, because I am not and that would be a lie (and I’m not a liar either) but I do know enough to know that one can not house a donkey with a bunch of guinea pigs and not expect at least a couple of crushed cavies by doing so. The turkeys and the ducks and the chicken certainly did not belong together and I was certain that at any minute an ornery pig was going to trip over a peacock tail or that a goat would scale the makeshift hay bale hill and take out a bunny or two… but nothing like that happened. There had to have been, when you added the guinea pigs and the fluffy chicks and the geese and so on and so forth, at least 60 animals in that little circus tent and they were all in one pen and they were all chill af. There was not a piece of poop in sight, not a thing out of place, here were a ton of animals that should not be together in a very small but ridiculously clean circus tent peacefully coexisting in a city that appeared nearly void of life.

After petting all the animals and realizing that the event was still pretty unattended and that the few people milling around all seemed to be dressed exactly alike, not wearing a uniform or costume but just all dressed alike in matching navy blue dress pants, neatly pressed white dress shirts, and utalitarians belts, each with a large key ring filled with an impossible number of keys, we realized the sponsors were not listed because who would come to a scientology circus tent? We opted to skip the cocoa, it was pretty warm outside anyway at this point, we managed to avoid the flyers being shoved into the few other attendees hands, and we made our way back out to the car.

There would never be another “Very Magical Christmas Petting Zoo” anonymously hosted by the Church of Scientology in downtown Clearwater, which is fine because that just adds to the whole bizarre experience. There is however a lesson in there, and I think that the lesson is that sometimes certain events don’t make sense and in theory just like this petting zoo they shouldn’t work and yet sometimes these crazy experiences wind up doing exactly that while being some of the best and most memorable adventures of our lives. There once was a wise man who said, “life is a highway, I wanna ride it… all night long… and if you’re going my way… I wanna ride it all night long.” and I think he’d agree, you tend to see some weird sh*t out on the open road…. Embrace it.

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