By Jasmine Willis
WAYLAND — A local petting zoo is enriching lives and bringing joy to others as they celebrate love and learn life lessons.
Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too is becoming a hub for the community to come together and create a safe place for children.
On May 1 and 2 they held the first ever Cinco de Mayo celebration to empower others to celebrate the meaning of life.
Shelbi Cleveland has volunteered at the petting zoo for three years now.
“It is amazing to see how far we have come along from where we started. We have customers that come back all the time. We had the special needs kids from (Livingston County) Arc come here to help since we opened. They have a sense of purpose and belonging here,” she said. “The first day I showed up here I told Cherie (Carter) I was never going to leave. This place has offered me a sense of home. No matter who you are or what you have done you are welcome here. This place feels like a part of my very soul.”
Cleveland added how everyone feels like they have found themselves at the petting zoo.
“There is way too much judgement in the world. I feel like everyone can be themselves here. No one is judged here. We are all a band of misfits. It all works out just fine. So many people have kept us going here, and we cannot thank them enough,” she said. “All of my kids have grown up at this place. I started out doing pony rides here and helping to care for the animals. The kids feel like this is part of their everyday life. I know my kids are always safe here. Everyone looks out for one another here. This is like an old school kind of place. The kind of place we all used to grow up in where everyone knew your name, and the door was always open.”
Cleveland said Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too is working on several programs that will help foster growth in the community.
“We attract the types of people who have had serious hardships. They have a sense of belonging here they never had anywhere else. People can connect to something here be it an animal or another person. Cherie (Carter) has adopted a tribe of misfits. If we can make a child feel safe that is one less person that grows up to do bad things in the community,” she said. “We have people come here who have never seen these kinds of animals before. We have people who will travel to this place to see our sheep who have never seen a sheep. We had some people who never saw a llama before. Some people from New York City never saw horses in real life and marveled at our horses,” Cleveland continued. “When you go to a zoo like Seneca Park you can see the animals in their cages, but you can’t interact with any of them. When you come here you can touch them, care for them, be part of their lives, feed them treats, and it becomes a completely different experience.”
A common theme at Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too is that more and more new customers are hearing about them and visiting. They still have their solid regulars that come from an hour or more away.
“This is not just a petting zoo we are running here. This is a home, a gathering place, a safe place for everyone. It is not what you have been labeled as or what you have been through that defines you here. You don’t find that anymore,” Cleveland said. “The people that find their way here are the ones who need this place the most. I think the leather work Cherie (Carter) does here is amazing. It can spark inspiration in someone’s life. They can learn a trade and make something. We have kids come here that can learn and grow and dream.
They can walk out of here being a veterinarian or counselor someday.”
Olivia Singer is the newest volunteer at the petting zoo. She found her place with the other
volunteers and Cherie Carter, Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too owner.
“This place has already changed my life. It is truly a happy place. Sometimes people will ask you what home is … this is my home. So much has already happened here,” she said. “I have been through a lot in my life. I always had an interest in animals ever since I was a little girl. I thought I would work on being a nurse someday, but I realized that is not who I am. I want to go to BOCES and work on animal science. This place has helped me find my way back.”
Singer said the petting zoo allowed her to work with her favorite animal Lucky the cow. She sees herself owning her own dairy farm someday.
“Lucky the cow speaks to me. I heard from another volunteer here (Abi Skelly) that there was a cow. I wanted to volunteer right away. Cows are my favorite animal. I helped on a friend’s farm three years ago to deliver a baby cow. It was the most amazing experience I ever had. I even helped her get in her first steps. I called her Cupid since she had a heart shaped mark on her head.”
Singer believes in the power of the kindness this place has on everyone who comes from all over to visit.
“Cherie has done so much already to change my life. That woman has changed so many lives. She is a great person to talk to about anything. She is always good with words. Abi has become a whole new sister. She is my mentor,” she said.
Abi Skelly has volunteered at the petting zoo for a couple of months now. She has already felt an intense connection to the animals.
“I am a full-time volunteer who stays with Cherie on the farm. I help to feed and care for the animals. This place means everything to me. I went from a place where I had no respect and felt trapped. I was having several meltdowns a week. To feel like my life has completely changed here. I have a voice here. I don’t feel trapped here,” she said. “A friend told me about coming to volunteer here and I met with Cherie a couple of months ago. I remember when I walked in, I felt like this was home. I had a connection with her as soon as I walked in the door.”
Skelly said she has a connection to all the animals at the petting zoo. She named a new hen Red. She has watched guinea pigs and bunnies grow up.
“I call Cherie ‘ma’ and my mother ‘mom’ when I am here. My mom loves Cherie too and has seen a huge improvement in me. I needed a big life changing moment, and this has been that for me. I have deep anxiety, depression, and multi-mood disorder that has crippled me. Olivia connected with me like we are sisters right away. Shelbi is a big sister to me here. We are all a family. This is a home for all of us. When I need to be alone, I can go off and have my own space here to be with the animals,” she said. “This place brought my personality back to life. I am getting used to being around people again and allowing myself to be a kid again. This place brings joy, comfort, and peace.”
Skelly said when she heard about what happened with Leah Clark at the Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and what Jessica Levinson is trying to create in her namesake. She knew she was put here for a reason.
“It is a sigh of relief for me that I get to do what I love. I have worked with people of all different disorders. I am excited to see all different types of people walk into this place. I been around horses all my life and I love to work with them. I get to help with the pony rides and that makes my whole day. I feel like I am in heaven with those horses,” she said. “My morning starts with feeing Tator Bug first. I take care of the rest of the animals after that. I carry the hay bales around and feed the animals in the barn. I care for all the animals first thing in the day and get some lunch later in the day. After I care for all the animals in the zoo, I go spend the rest of the time with the horses. This is my typical routine.”
Skelly said all the volunteers can have a voice at the petting zoo. They each do their part in caring for the animals and the chores around the place.
“I hope I can help others see this is the place to be, and that this place has changed my life. God has put me here for a purpose. I can really make a difference here,” she said.
Carter said she has appreciated all the help these girls and the other volunteers have given her.
“I am amazed at how much the community has stepped up to help me. The yard sale we had here was huge. People came to donate some good stuff. We have what is left packed up for another yard sale. We will do it again soon. This is truly a family-friendly place that has been a healing place for so many people,” she said. “We are an honest, upfront, and safe place to bring your children to spend the day with the animals and learn some life lessons. I love seeing all the kids learn things. Olivia has loved to think outside of the box. I love teaching kids how to do the leather, because it is a process, they can be part of from the start and hold onto. It makes them feel good to make something of their own. The sad part about education is nothing is hands on anymore. I like offering a hands-on approach for kids here. I know I can reach these kids.”
Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too is located at 1864 Route 63 in Wayland. The cost is $8 a person for the zoo and $2 a person for pony rides. Anyone under two years old is free. They can be reached at 585-978-5611. Hours are Thurs. to Sat. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sun. noon to 5 p.m. Call ahead of time for Sunday visits due to private parties. Schedule your very own Unicorn Party today. Private Unicorn Parties are available on Sundays at $325 with up to 40 people. You can decorate the night before or the day of. The next event is Wild Wild West on June 19 and 20 with a cost of $10 a person for the zoo.