Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

ANIMAL FARM

Making a connection

Petting zoo seeks to bring people, animals together

Tom Klein
Posted 10/17/14

COOK – Taylor Hadrava wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the miniature donkeys poking their muzzles through the fencing.

The Eveleth youngster reached out to stroke their soft fur, giggled …

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ANIMAL FARM

Making a connection

Petting zoo seeks to bring people, animals together

Posted

COOK – Taylor Hadrava wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the miniature donkeys poking their muzzles through the fencing.

The Eveleth youngster reached out to stroke their soft fur, giggled with delight and ordered the donkeys to “sit,” as if she were issuing commands to a dog.

“She just loves animals,” her mother, Katie, said.

The Hadravas came to the right place. Cook’s Country Connection, which features a petting zoo filled with everything from barnyard chickens to exotic pigs, states its mission as connecting people, animals and the land. The site is located a short distance from Cook at 1953 Vermilion Drive.

For Lois and Laura Pajari, it’s a dream come true. Lois, who with her sister previously operated the Cook Dollar Barn, said she had the paperwork for starting a petting zoo on her desk there at least for a year.

“But something always came up,” she said. “It would get busy at the store in the summer or I had to renovate an apartment and I just never got around to it.”

Fate intervened on June 17, 2013, when a fire swept through the Brown Building where the Dollar Barn, Gilley’s Naturals and eight apartments were located. No one was injured in the blaze, but the damage to the structure was extensive and it was demolished to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring structures.

Lois was initially unsure what her future would hold but returned to her dream of turning the family farm into a place where people could get back to nature.

“The idea is to get people to unplug and go outside,” she said. “It has been awesome to see all these kids connecting with animals. The days of the family farm are waning and we’re losing some of the lessons we can learn on a farm. When kids interact with animals, they learn about responsibilities and kindness.”

While many of the critters at Cook’s Country Connection wouldn’t be out of place on a typical family farm, others are more unique.

A pair of kunekune pigs, which hail from New Zealand and were nearly wiped out of existence, are among the more popular exotic animals at the petting zoo. Lois named the male pig George Kuni while the female is named Ruby. Plans are to mate the two pigs this spring.

The pigs make great pets. They’re very clean and enjoy a nice scratch behind the ear or a belly rub, just like a dog, said Lois.

In the adjacent pens are the ponies, Little Bit, Itchy and Squirt. Itchy and Squirt have also been branded as the very naughty ponies for their habit of wandering off from the farm.

Other residents of the petting zoo include alpacas Maddox and Madelyn, five llamas, goats Pixie and Pepper, and miniature donkeys, Travelin’ Jack, Toby and Poppy. The menagerie also includes a Scottish Highlander cow named Lilly, an assortment of cats and dogs, turkeys, sheep and rabbits.

Farm’s history

The operation is located on the homestead of the Pajaris’ Swedish great-grandfather, Albert Peterson, who acquired the 120 acres thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862. A copy of the legal document conveying the land to Peterson and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt is on display in the original barn. Photo albums document the farm’s 100-year history and are available for folks to leaf through and learn more about the site’s history.

The barn has been converted into a gift shop and activity center. Lois said they plan to host dances and possibly movie nights at the barn, and have already played host to at least one birthday party. “It was for an eight-year-old boy,” said Lois. “He told me it was his best birthday ever.”

Future plans for the site could include Community Education classes, hay rides and nature walks.

The gift shop features many items crafted by Laura, made from silverware, glass bottles and other odds and ends.

The Pajari sisters grew up on a nearby cattle farm and visited often as children. Lois and her husband, Steve Garns, are the current owners of the land while Laura and her husband, Paul Williams, live next door on part of the original property. Steve has a small sawmill operation on the land, as well.

The petting zoo, which started operation on Labor Day weekend, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until the end of October. Special group visits can also be accommodated and Lois said they’ve already had groups from the North Woods and Nett Lake Elementary Schools as well as from after-school programs at area churches.

Admission is $6 per person plus tax. Kids age two and under are admitted free. You can also purchase a season pass for $25, which is good from May through October during the regular hours of operation. Reservations for birthday parties or other special events can be made by calling 218-780-8611.

Ironically, when she was growing up, Lois said she had no interest in farming. “I was going to live in apartment,” she said.

But family roots grow deep and she has returned to the farm with a mission — to teach others how they depend on the land and the animals that populate it and the importance of caring for the environment.

For more information on Cook’s Country Connection, visit the website www.cookscountryconnection.com.

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