Nashville Zoo Exhibit Showcases Heritage Breed Farm Animals
Perched atop the bottom half of a wooden Dutch barn door at the Nashville Zoo’s Grassmere Historic Farm, a silver-laced Wyandotte chicken named Pearl clucks softly as a young couple stops to snap photos of her black and white plumage. In a pasture nearby, Tipton and Boone, two Milking Devon steers, playfully nudge each other. [Read more about the Milking Devon breed of cattle.]
“It’s interesting working with them because they know they have [dangerous horns],” jokes Hall Whitaker, the zoo’s supervisor of contact areas. “We tread lightly in their company.”
Pearl and her bovine neighbors are among nine different heritage breed species currently housed on 10 sprawling acres at one end of the zoo property. A replica of a real working farm, the exhibit opened to the public when the zoo relocated in 1999. (The main house, which dates back to 1810, is the farm’s only original structure.) But it wasn’t until about two years ago that zookeepers began adding a collection of what they deem “historically significant” livestock animals once treasured by farmers for their multiple purposes.
“They owned cattle that could not only plow fields but provide meat and milk and a variety of other things. Horses provided lots of different benefits; chickens were the same way,” says Jim Bartoo, the zoo’s marketing and public relations director. “[Over the years] farms started focusing on animals that did the best at one particular thing, like Angus cows producing meat. People stopped buying and breeding animals like these because they were no longer the top animal in any one category.”
At Grassmere Historic Farm, however, the heritage breeds are the stars.
In one pasture, three Belted Galloway heifers – Duffy, Maisey and Kenzie – munch on grass, their black bodies girdled by wide white bands, hence the nicknames panda or Oreo cows. Smaller and hairier than most cattle, these hardy, docile animals were first imported to the U.S. in the 1940s from Galloway, Scotland. Sharing the heifers’ pen is Stormy, an energetic black miniature pony.
“He came from a Mennonite farm and pulled a cart,” says Whitaker. “Originally he lived at the petting zoo, but he likes to run so he’s happier here.”
Other heritage breeds on display include Kane, a rare black Clydesdale and former member of a pulling team; Dawn, a Gypsy Vanner draft horse with “feathering” around her feet; Hank the mule, who’s popular with the kids; three long-haired Cotswold sheep – Nigel, Bojangles and Otto – who, years ago, would have been coveted for their luxurious wool; and Brownie, an African pygmy goat cross who lost one of his horns in a bout of head-butting.
Bartoo stresses the need to conserve heritage breeds, which are now considered endangered, even though they might not seem as glamorous as other zoo animals.
“You can build something that’s outstandingly beautiful, be it as exotic as an exhibit for a siamang [a Sumatran monkey] swinging through the trees or as [grounded in history] as a family farm that you’d see in the 1800s,” he notes. “Young children are just as amazed by horses and sheep and cows as they are by tigers and bears and lions.
“Furthermore,” Bartoo adds, “It’s important for people to understand that farms as our parents and grandparents knew them are gone. That’s what this is supposed to do: give people an idea of what a farm was like when their grandparents and great-grandparents were growing up.”
If You Go …
Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
Address: 3777 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN 37211
Phone: (615) 833-1534
Price: $10-15 for zoo admission, which includes a self-guided tour of Grassmere Historic Farm. Croft House guided tours and gardening demonstrations available at various times
Summer hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.