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Pinellas schools' petting zoo future is fuzzy

Vickie Nichols, 61, feeds Daphne, a sheep at the Elementary Tour Farm in Seminole. Nichols has been the caretaker for 22 years.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Vickie Nichols, 61, feeds Daphne, a sheep at the Elementary Tour Farm in Seminole. Nichols has been the caretaker for 22 years.

SEMINOLE — "Farmer" Vickie Nichols has been chased and butted by cows, stepped on by pigs and slugged in the face by a turkey.

She has also had the joy of giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a sheep, goat, pig and duck; allowing a baby goat to sleep in her bed; and watching children's faces light up when they come face to face with farm animals for the first time.

But now, after 22 years at the Elementary Tour Farm, the petting zoo on the grounds of the Seminole Vocational Education Center, Nichols is hanging up her pitchfork.

She will turn 62 on Christmas and said, "I just can't do it anymore. I've lost my stamina and strength."

The question remains of what happens to the animals — Petunia Pig, Jethro Boar-dean, Val-Ewe the sheep, Ellie Mae the cow, Daphne the sheep, Hannibal and Delilah the donkeys, Henry II the turkey, Peabody the peacock, and the 26 chickens, 12 ducks, two more turkeys, two goats and five rabbits that live at the petting farm. Right now, students from the Vo-Ed center are feeding them, but it's possible the animals will be sold and the petting farm could be closed.

"It's a shame," Nichols said. "I've already cried several times."

No decision is likely to be made about closing the petting zoo until after the first of the year, said Matt Fischer, principal of the Vo-Ed Center. The center has canceled several trips scheduled for the new year and has an offer from someone who wants to buy the animals.

The possibility of closure comes from drastically reduced participation. When Fischer first arrived at the Vo-Ed Center 11 years ago, about 10,000 children cycled through the farm. Now, it's about 3,000 a year. The high cost of transportation and the lack of time because of the demands of FCAT and other such tests have cut into visits, he said.

Nichols said closing the farm, which was opened in the 1960s, would be a big loss not only to the Pinellas County school system but also to the community, which borrows the animals for plays and other events, such as Christmas displays at nearby churches.

"St. Cecilia in Clearwater borrowed a lamb one time for shepherd lessons, whatever they are," Nichols said. And, some of those loans have provided great tales for Nichols — like the time a donkey wandered away from a manger scene and was found in the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant.

Nichols has collected many tales during her 22 years at the petting zoo. One story involves the baby goat she bottle-fed. She took it home and "she slept in the bed with us." When the goat was ready for solids, Nichols bought it goat food.

"The stupid goat ate the dog food and the dogs ate the Goat Chow," she said.

Other stories involve other animals she has saved.

"I've done CPR on sheep, goats, a pig and a duck," Nichols said.

Not bad for a woman who had no farm experience when she applied for the job after touring the farm and returning to cuddle a baby pig.

But it has not been all sweetness and light. The animals can get cranky and ornery. Henry II, the turkey, for example, lost his temper once when she picked him up. He swung his head and hit her in the face, cutting her.

"They used to love us at workers' comp because of the stories," she said.

The injuries have taken their toll. Nichols said she's not as agile as she used to be and so it's harder to avoid hooves and teeth. Ellie Mae the cow likes to butt her, she said. Trouble is, Nichols' knees won't stand up to the force these days and the butting has become intimidating.

"Ellie Mae's got my number," she said. "I just don't have the strength anymore."

Contact Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas schools' petting zoo future is fuzzy 12/15/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 1:51pm]
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