In one corner of the room, Keenan, a red fox, happily wrestles with a bouncing bichon named Tarzan. A cat and a small muntjac deer, Fiona, run and frolic nearby. Rio, a colorful macaw squawks across the room.
Even with all the commotion, an oblivious, descented skunk named Pepé Le Pew sweetly snuggles on the verge of sleep on a visitor’s lap.
Kathleen Bowen smiles in the middle of it all, highlighting her mini menagerie known as Zoo’opolis Exotic Petting World on County Road 50 South, a few miles west of Columbus. She has taken the “call of the wild” via mostly abused and rescued animals and turned it into a safe presentation of the “hall of the mild,” if you will.
Her nonprofit business and educational center features more than 40 species — and growing — among more than 100 critters on her animal planet.
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“My mother told me when we opened three years ago, ‘So many people are going to thank you,’” Bowen said.
And they have, from school groups such as C4 students to nursing home residents to special-needs youngsters with autism who found the place to be healing.
Bowen’s 3,000-square-foot converted home — just part of the five-acre establishment — is where Zoo’opolis marketing director Angie Gaskin kisses Trixie the raccoon on the lips, where children and others have bottle-fed young goats, where friendly wallabies study customers curiously, where Lady the cockatoo tells people she loves them, and where … well, we could be here all day.
Because of the indoor area that can accommodate about 50 visitors in a three-hour window, Zoo’opolis is open rain or shine. And Bowen and her team of workers expect solid crowds for spring break beginning March 10. She simply wants to make sure customers have time to touch, to hold and to ask questions about her furry and feathered and other friends.
“Probably the No. 1 question we get is, ‘Can we really touch the animals?’”
That’s because Bowen, who was not permitted to have pets as a California kid, loves being the informal instructor as much as anything.
“I’ve found that about half of what you find online (about animals) is not necessarily accurate,” she said. “So I take a lot of joy and pride in teaching people.”
The animals themselves make certain of the place’s hospitality. On some warm weather days last year, her teacup pigs initially greeted guests outside, followed by lovable Duchess the Doberman, who sometimes seems to compete with her peers for attention and affection. And then you have Russian tortoises such as Dixie who appreciate having their legs massaged, thank you.
So no wonder Gaskin’s 6-year-old daughter, Kimberly Jacobo, already has her sights set on working at Zoo’opolis in the future.
“She wants to be a tour guide,” Gaskin said.
Workers such as Sarah Barnes feel fortunate to be among the zoological collection all around her, even as she cleans the floor in the entryway.
“There’s never a dull moment around here,” Barnes said, trying to sweep around several of the critters. “The work is really rewarding.”
In a world where most people are separated from many animals by fences or glass or some other partition at zoos or elsewhere, Bowen sees a lot of guests surprised that they can easily and calmly pet a prairie dog, for instance.
“Probably the No. 1 question we get is, ‘Can we really touch the animals?’” Bowen said.
As Bowen sees it, people touch the animals and then the animals touch the people — in their heart. Of course, that means she and her staff make socialization of the animals a top priority, interacting with them as much as possible to ensure overall congeniality.
“Their personality clearly has to be such that they wouldn’t harm people,” she said.
Just to be safe, she uses basic precautions. For example, the fox is normally kept on a literal short leash with a staff member when he is allowed indoors. A U.S. Department of Agriculture official visits, with no advance notice, several times per year to make sure guidelines for such a business are followed.
Bowen mentioned that even those officials have been impressed with her buddies’ warmth and social skills. And, as Bowen’s clientele grows, so do her plans. She made plans to visit a wolf needing a new home, so she’s already planning his outdoor habitat.
A brown-and-white skunk will soon be added to keep their other odor-able friend company.
“We’re always adjusting and changing around here,” Bowen said.
What: Zoo’opolis Exotic Petting World, a five-acre, up-close, animal extravaganza. Features more than 40 species and more than 100 animals from birds and reptiles to prairie dogs, wallabies, alpacas, a descented skunk, sugar gliders, teacup pigs, goats, tortoises, a racoon, fox, and much more. Because of a 3,000-square-foot indoor facility, it is open rain or shine.
Where: 12696 W. County Road 50S, a few miles west of Columbus.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Staff always recommends calling ahead.
Admission: Adults, $25 (16 years and older); children $15 (3 years old to 15); 2 years old and younger admitted free.
How you help: Donations of pet food, meats and such always are welcomed.
Information: 812-764-4980 or zoo-opolisexoticpettingworld.com