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‘They call it their happy place’: Indoor petting zoo draws animal lovers to Coeur d’Alene

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 10, 2019

A goat greets customers at Big Red’s Barn petting zoo in Coeur d'Alene on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
A goat greets customers at Big Red’s Barn petting zoo in Coeur d'Alene on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Big Red’s Barn doesn’t look all that big from the outside, but inside, there’s an entire animal kingdom waiting to be petted and fed in pens just behind a couple of big swinging gates.

Jeannene Christ opened Big Red’s Barn, an indoor petting zoo in Coeur d’Alene, almost a year ago.

As a veterinary technician, Christ has always loved animals, especially exotic ones. After moving to Spokane almost 15 years ago, she continued to add new animals to her growing collection.

“I started looking like I was a hoarder,” Christ joked. “So I was like, ‘Well, I better start putting some of this stuff into working mode.’ ”

That’s when Christ started a mobile petting zoo that she took to birthday parties, fairs and community events. But after a decade of loading up the animals and transporting them, it became too much for her.

Then last year, she decided to make her dreams a reality by opening Big Red’s Barn, where people could gather, pet exotic and farm animals, and where she could help re-home animals in need.

“It’s just been so crazy,” Christ said. “It’s all new, again. Being the first year, every day has been a new experience.”

The zoo is named after Big Red, a Brazilian Hindu steer that Christ got almost two years ago.

“Big Red is what it’s all about. So I got him and I’m like he needs a place called Big Red,” Christ said. “He needs something named after him. He needs a building.”

Big Red’s Barn is home to a capybara named Hector, bunnies, piglets, donkeys, a llama, goats big and small, a variety of birds, and a reptile room.

Visitors get a cup of fresh veggies to feed the animals and can wander through the large center pen, petting and feeding them.

And those are just the typical petting zoo animals.

At the beginning of November, a pair of sloths named Bonnie and Clyde joined the zoo. They are from a breeder in Tennessee and came to Christ on loan. They hang out in a special room kept at a temperature perfect for the sloths and are available by appointment for “experiences” for people 10 years of age and older.

For Ashley Garcia, 26, sloths have been an obsession since she did a school project on the animal in third grade.

Garcia considered going to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica to see her favorite animal, but a few weeks ago she saw that a couple of sloths were coming to live at Big Red’s.

Garcia and her friend Stephanie McCluskey decided to head to Big Red’s and interact with sloths in person.

“It’s awesome,” Garcia exclaimed as she petted Clyde.

During the 20 minutes the women spent in Bonnie and Clyde’s room, Garcia and Christ swapped sloth facts.

“I love sloths, so I read about them a lot,” Garcia said. “In the wild, they grow moss on their backs because they’re so slow.”

“It camouflages, and it also provides moisture for them,” Christ added.

Garcia stood between the two sloths, trying to coax Bonnie to wake up before feeding Clyde a piece of fruit.

After finally meeting her favorite animal in person, Garcia still plans to get the sloth tattoo she has been thinking about for a while. It will be on her leg, with a sunflower over its eye, she said with a smile, while looking up at Bonnie.

The sloths aren’t the only one-on-one animal experience on offer at Big Red’s.

A visit to the African sand cat will teach you that what looks like an average house cat is really one of Africa’s most deadly predators. African sand cats mainly eat rodents and prefer to be alone, without the company of other cats.

“He will kill anything. He will even go for the cows,” Christ said. “They have a close to 97% kill rate.”

The petting zoo is still a work in progress, with new animals coming and going all the time.

Part of what keeps Big Red’s running smoothly is Christ’s small army of employees. She hires a lot of high schoolers, excited for their first job.

Mason Margo, 17, is a junior in high school who has worked at Big Red’s for a few months.

“I love animals so much,” Margo said.

The job started out as a class project but has become something more than that for Margo. He works weekend mornings, usually trying to stay close to his favorite animal, Hector the capybara.

“Some people are scared of him just because of his teeth, but he’s sweet,” Margo said.

Margo has a pet chorkie, a chihuahua and Yorkshire terrier mix, named Penny, “’cause she’s small like a penny,” he said with a laugh.

Christ also hires people through Tesh and Community Connections Inc., organizations that place individuals with developmental disabilities in jobs.

Big Red’s also partners with the Monarch Train, a nonprofit focused on literacy. The Monarch Train holds a monthly book club in the space, and Christ plans to add a reading nook full of bookshelves in the next month or so.

“Basically, it’ll be where any kid can come in and take one of our books home,” Christ said.

A play area for toddlers is being expanded, and more animals, including otters, are on the list of things Christ hopes to add to Big Red’s.

Big Red’s offers season passes and has a surprising number of regular visitors.

“We have a few people that come in every night after work,” Christ said. “They call it their happy place to get their fix.”

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