Petting zoo owner passionate about animals

Jodi
Jodi Schellenberg
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While taking a break from the lights and sounds of the midway, children flocked over to the petting zoo.

Alex LaSalle has owned and operated his own petting zoo since 1971 and has been travelling from his hometown of Prince Albert, Ont. to the west coast since 1974.

“It makes people happy and gives them exposure to animals and a hands on experience --that’s why I do it,” he said.

The idea to create a petting zoo came from LaSalle’s brother.

“My brother basically started it and then I worked for him for years and years,” LaSalle said.

After working for his brother for a number of years, LaSalle decided to branch out on his own. Although his wife has a regular job, she also helps out with the petting zoo when she can.

Now LaSalle’s petting zoo has a wide variety of animals for children to enjoy at carnivals, fairs and other events.

“What I have now is what I think most people want,” LaSalle said. “We don’t really want caged animals and so many exotics -- this is a different thing altogether. Zoos can have that but our little petting zoo is just a good variety of animals that are friendly and you can feed too.”

They have chickens, potbellied pigs, an emu, llama, alpaca, camel, goats, sheep and more.

All of the animals have their own stories. The camel is now 28 years old.

“She has raised me eight babies and we are kind of slowing down now that I am supposed to be retired,” he laughed.

The petting zoo also had a two-week old lamb for visitors to see.

“When we arrived in Red Deer, which was two exhibitions ago, she came down off the truck and there she was,” he said. “It was a surprise because it is off-season.”

The lamb wasn’t the only baby animal -- there was also twin baby goats, who were born in the spring.

Another unique animal was the zebu bull, which is a miniature breed of cattle from North Africa and India that don’t grow more than 35 inches tall and weigh about 300 pounds.

He has been cutting down on the amount of animals he has since he is mostly retired now.

“We only have about 150 animals altogether, at home and here,” LaSalle said. “About half of them are here and we have more at home.”

Although some people may think the animals are overworked, LaSalle said that’s not the case.

“We have a rest pen over there for the bigger ones right now until it gets busier and then they interchange with the others,” LaSalle said. “Everybody gets a chance for our animals to come into the petting zoo with the children. They take turns until it gets really busy and then they are all out there.”

LaSalle has always been an animal lover, so the petting zoo was the perfect venture for him to take on.

“I like animals a lot -- I grew up with 50 head of horses and we always had extras in the back yard, whether it was chickens or pigs or something,” LaSalle said. “It was the old-fashioned type of farm with a variety.

“Nowadays it is mostly just beef or just grain,” he added. “It is hard to get those little farms that have a little bit of everything. We still go out and pick our own eggs and stuff like that at home. If we are lucky, they are laying on the road and we can have some breakfast too.”

Although he loves all animals, LaSalle’s favourite one is his dog, Elvis.

“Outside of that, the rest of them, you kind of have your favourites for a while but you can’t really put one above the other, I guess,” he said.

Elvis is his constant companion while he is on the road.

“She is on the front seat with me, looking out the window,” he said. “When everybody else is sleeping, she is with me.

“It is a little difficult when she gets home because the other two dogs they are going to be jealous,” he smiled. “When we pull in with a tuck and trailer into our farm, they are all heehawing and the cows are mooing and they know everybody is back and make a big fuzz.”

Since he is semi-retired, LaSalle doesn’t do a lot of work outside of Ontario and when at home he only works on the weekends.

“I came out for three shows out west and I do a lot of special events near home,” LaSalle said. “This is a long drive but we have our regular water stops. It makes it quite easy. I have a crew of three to look after the animals and I do all the driving myself.”

Although he only works on weekends back home, LaSalle said he could be taking the petting zoo to almost anything.

“It is not just the fairs, it is festivals plus we might work at McDonalds at the restaurant,” LaSalle said. “We will just come in for a day to senior’s home or a school.”

When his animals aren’t in the petting zoo, they might be found on the silver screen.

“We do movie work too because all the animals are tamed,” he said. “All the animals are trained.”

The donkey, Jack, is very popular around Christmastime.

“On Christmas Eve he goes to church -- he has to be good enough not to shy and go up the steps to the altar and be part of the Bethlehem scene,” LaSalle said.

Some of the other animals, such as the sheep and goats, will also be part of the manager scene.

Jack also takes place in the Walk to Bethlehem near Hamilton, a four-day event put on by 10 churches.

LaSalle’s petting zoo is open from 1 to 9 p.m. daily at the Archie Anderson Pavilion during the exhibition.

Geographic location: Prince Albert, Red Deer, North Africa India Bethlehem Ontario

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