Penny and Clementine may smell like manure and make funny noises, but they still get weekly visits from Gainesville youth.
The animals of Morningside Nature Center — including Penny the cow and Clementine the hog — poke their snouts out at curious children carrying handfuls of food during Barnyard Buddies, a weekly event at the farm.
The program has been going on for at least 20 years, said Merald Clark, the farm’s nature assistant. Tours take place every Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Children offer handfuls of hay and seed to the six sheep, two flocks of chickens, two hogs and one cow during this interactive petting zoo event.
“We’ve got these great animals. We feed them every day anyway, but why not take one day a week and let the young’uns help feed the animals, too?” Clark, 62, said.
Clark leads families around the barn, stopping at animal pens to mention fun facts and explain the proper way to feed them.
“To play in the dirt, to pet the cow and to have the little teeth of the sheep nibble on their hand as they’re getting to the corn — it’s just direct, sensual experience,” he said.
Any age group is welcome to visit the nature center, but most visitors are families with young children.
Other local organizations like O2BKids and city recreation centers often bring children to visit the farm, and numbers can reach up to about 100 people, including adults, he said.
During Barnyard Buddies, Clark said the center implements all safety precautions for the animals and their visitors. Both chickens and hogs are separated from crowds by two fences, as the birds peck and the hogs can be aggressive and don’t see well. The children can toss the food from a distance.
“Fingers have never been hurt,” he said.
Chelsie Papiez, 32, and her 9-month-old daughter, Ellinor, were visiting the nature center for the first time in early November.
“I think it’s great,” Papiez said. “I think many of us moms who are at home with kids need these outlets, especially getting the kids outside.”
Morningside Nature Center also hosts other interactive farm events, like Farm Living for fourth- and fifth-graders and Farm Adventure for kindergarteners and first graders.
Danielle Durst, one of the mothers attending Barnyard Buddies, said she enjoyed watching her daughter see these animals for the first time.
“We’ve gone to the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, but you don’t really get to feed and pet them,” she said.
[A version of this story ran on page 3 on 12/1/2014]