Tiny Animals Everywhere
Cuteness overload: Tiny Tails to You! Petting Zoo
These adorable baby animals became the first members of the Tiny Tails To You! Petting Zoo, an Austin-based hands-on traveling zoo designed for kids and adults to engage with the sounds and sights and textures of tiny, friendly, unfamiliar animals. Supervised by their parents and Tiny Tails handlers, children are able to pet the tiny creatures that have been comfortably accustomed to tiny humans.
“I love the idea of exposing people to animals they’ve never seen before,” says Chelsea Phillips, the luckiest business owner in all of Austin. Combining her passion for teaching with her love of animals, Tiny Tails meets a need for many Austin area parents looking for new ways to excite their curious young ones.
Over the last two years, Phillips has developed Tiny Tails into a full-time operation with weekly petting zoos at HOPE Farmers Market and Barton Creek Squre Mall as well as regular monthly story time at BookPeople.
“Story time with Bookpeople has become huge, we get about 150 people there each time,” explains Phillips. “But people don’t always get as much time with the animals, so I wanted to develop other ways to engage with the kids and parents.”
To answer this need, Phillips is launching weekly reservation-only playgroups at BookPeople starting September 15 that combine craft time with petting zoo time. “For the first class we’re making these adorable cardboard tortoise shells for the kids to go along with turtle and tortoise facts and playtime with a real tortoise.”
For those expecting just fuzzy animals, you should know the most recent additions to the petting zoo are a very docile tortoise and a friendly bearded dragon lizard. Phillips named her saucer-sized tortoise Knuckles Tortellini, but he usually just goes by Mr. T. The bearded dragon’s name is Abraham Lincoln, for obvious reasons.
“We always had weird animals growing up,” recalls Phillips. “My parents own their own traditional petting zoo in Maryland with llamas and alpacas, more of what you’d expect in a petting zoo. I got my idea from them.”
The knowledge and respect for uncommon animals continued throughout college when Phillips came to Austin to study at The University of Texas. Originally intending to be a teacher, Phillips got sidetracked into government and spent time as a political lobbyist. “I like being surrounded by animals as much as people, so I started the zoo as a side project. As it got more popular, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to work seven days a week in addition to the zoo, and it became my full time job.”
Now Phillips spends her time tending to her animals, transporting them to birthday parties and special events, administering her 17 person staff and navigating the fast growth and change of a successful start-up business. “In April of 2009, it was just me and my sister and brother working part time, and now we’re hiring people on to keep up with the constant requests. There are weeks I work 60 hours between doing payroll and tending to the animals,” she says.
In case you’re wondering, the animals all stay at Phillips’ North Austin home. Her large office is known as The Animal Room, and they do require a tremendous amount of care, from exercise to feeding to routine check-ups. And a couple of the animals, like Sonica and Machu Pichu, are nocturnal animals, meaning they stay active at nighttime.
“The animals have all adapted to a pretty normative schedule, so even the nocturnal ones will sleep at night,” says Phillips. “But they’re noisy sometimes. So just in case, my fiancée and I keep a pretty loud fan in our room on all night.”
As for concerns of animal rights activists, Phillips is incredibly proud of her impeccable records and up-to-date permits from the county, the state and the Department of Agriculture. “It took a few months to figure out what even was needed, but we figured it out before we started. Now we have surprise visits from vets that make sure we’ve got all of our permits and living conditions in order. It’s actually better having strict rules because there’s no denying them.”
Phillips is very aware of the concerns and criticisms many Austinites might have about petting zoos, so she is smartly prepared for the resistance that may come. She is quick to point out the huge differences between Tiny Tails and a traditional petting zoo, a city-owned zoo or even a circus.
“I take a huge responsibility for the animals’ happiness and their lives,” she adds. “They’re more than my pets. They’re my babies. But they’re also my coworkers who get paid in treats and love. They really help me out a lot, and I take the very best care of them. I talk to them constantly. I’m actually the crazy lady who has all the animals and talks to them all the time!”
Driven by Phillips’ keen sense of humor, business acumen and passion for education, Tiny Tails for You! Petting Zoo is a wonderful example of Austin inventiveness being rewarded for its originality and heart. As the only petting zoo in the city limits, the business meets a need that you maybe don’t know you have until you pet a chinchilla for the first time.
Besides the new Thursday playgroups at BookPeople, Phillips is already investigating her next acquisitions to the petting zoo, a process that takes her a few months. “I’m hoping my next animals will be a snake and a rat. My fiancée is terrified of rats, so I’m supposed to respect that. But I like to help people get over their fears and make them see how friendly these animals can be.”
As for Phillips and her fiancée, they’re taking the weekend of October 15 off from travelling the petting zoo so they can get married. “I was told I wasn’t able to bring any animals to the wedding,” laughs Phillips. “But I found a venue that has goats and chickens, so I might sneak a few bunnies in for good measure. Instead of flowers, I might just have a bouquet of bunnies.”