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Santa at the Zoo

Santa Claus and Cherie Carter talk importance of Christmas Spirit. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

By Jasmine Willis

WAYLAND — The Christmas spirit was alive at the local petting zoo this season.

Cherie Carter, Dinky Doo Petting Zoo and Pony Rides Too owner set up a Santa Shed for the first time this year to keep Santa Claus out of the bad weather. It was warm and cozy with a Christmas Tree, stuffed white toy bears, a wreath, and the toy pony all decorated for the children.

On Dec. 10, 11, and 12 the Santa at the Zoo weekend marked the last event at the zoo for the year. It will open again to the public on its annual Easter Hunt in April.

The children enjoyed the decorated pony too. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

Robert Harder has been a Santa Helper for many years. He has brought joy to children at the petting zoo and other local businesses.

Harder will be at Shannon’s Barber Shop on Dec. 18 from 8 a.m. until noon. He will be at K’s Canine Training Services from 12:30 pm until 3 p.m. on the same day.

This little one loved sitting on Santa Claus. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

Being Santa Claus is a big part of how Harder gives back to the community. He believes in the Christmas Spirit. Harder said he is a man of faith and knows the meaning of the holiday is Jesus. He believes Santa Claus is a big part of that by showing people kindness, love, and hope for the holidays.

“We all need human interaction to feel good. Especially around this time of year when it is hard on a lot of people. I sang for the Waylandiers before I was Santa Claus and little kids would come up to me talking to me like I was him. I have always had a heart for this. I could step into his shoes. I have always taken time with each kid even if they have a lot of questions,” he said. “You know every kid matters. It is a very serious thing to be Santa Claus for them. This is something they take with them for the rest of their lives. I have adults who will talk to me and sit down with me too. I am here for everyone.”

“I know Jesus is the reason for the season. I truly believe that Santa is a part of that. The way I see it Jesus is my boss. I am not taking over for him. I am just down here trying to show the love and kindness to others. If I can give someone a smile or make them feel hope it will be worth it,” Harder continued.

Abi Skelly sits on Santa Claus. This is her first Santa at the Zoo. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

Harder never asks for anything to be Santa Claus at these events. He does it out of the love for other people. He wants to spread Christmas spirit for everyone. Harder added the best part of the job is the little children who still believe.

“Before the pandemic there was a grandfather program I was looking into at Strong Memorial Hospital that lets you come into the maternity ward and rock the newborn babies that are fussy. I was really upset when I couldn’t do that program. I really hope we can get back to that point. It was such a great program and I really love the little ones. I was going to be Santa Claus,” he said. “The thing someone showed me recently that made me cry was seeing a Santa Claus in the city helping the homeless. He was carrying a big bag around with jackets, boots, gloves, hats, and containers of soup to feed them. It touched my heart and made me cry. I think this is a man who helps out a lot, but he wanted to put on the Santa Claus suit this time to make it extra special for them.”

The party room has been all decked out. Private parties are held ever Sunday at the zoo on opening season. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

Harder said he keeps the Santa Letters and Santa Lists and all the drawings for every child over the years. It is what he loves the most.

“When I first started I had two real metal mailboxes placed outside for kids to put letters to Santa Claus in. I had stamped envelopes to Santa Claus and paper they could write their letters on. After a couple years the kids lost interest. I would love to bring that back,” he said. “I want to bring a whole Santa Claus workshop to the Atlanta Depot. That is my ultimate dream. I want a Santa Claus Post Office and workshop in the old Atlanta Depot. I would have all my Santa Claus things I have collected on display all year long. I would have all the letters, lists, and drawings out. It can be a permanent spot for parents to bring the kids to get photos with Santa Claus. It would be a dream come true for me.”

MIA the llama is one of the originals at the zoo. PHOTOS BY JASMINE WILLIS

Carter said she keeps doing these types of events for the joy it brings the little ones. That makes it all worth it for her. She loves to see the twinkle in their eyes. Some of the original animals from six years ago are still at the zoo. The llama: Mia, the pig; Sweet Pea, the donkey: Pete, and Chuck the horse. The rest have been collected and cared for over the years. There are about 200 animals at the petting zoo. It costs about $18,000 to care for them. Carter is always looking for donations and volunteers to keep the place running. She is thankful for all those who helped with the animals, the cookie donations, and the event.

Free Spirit Leather Shop is open all year long even when the petting zoo is closed for the winter season. It is located at 1864 Rt. 63 in Wayland. Call for an order at 585-978-5611.

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