Lino Lakes couple provide gentle animals for petting zoos, pony rides
When Bill Walton walks out on his farm, animals from around the world come to greet him.
The first gate gives him access to the barnyard, where the Great Pyrenees dogs leave whatever they are doing to spend time with Walton. These large dogs were bred hundreds of years ago to guard sheep on steep, mountainous slopes in southern France and northern Spain.
Other parts of the world are represented in the goat pen. As Walton enters, he is approached by groups of pygmy and Nigerian dwarf goats, two West African breeds. There are also lop-eared Nubian goats, a breed that originated in England by crossing Old English goats with bucks from India, Russia and Egypt.
When he opens the gate to the largest pasture, ponies see him from the far corners and make their way to Walton, competing with a Norwegian Fjord horse for his attention.
These are animals who like people.
And Walton and his wife Jean love animals.
Jean was raised on a farm in southern Iowa and Bill on a farm in northern North Dakota. But when they met in Des Moines, Jean worked as a secretary and Bill was attending computer school. After their marriage in 1966, it was 13 years before they started farming together.
First, Bill was drafted and spent three years in the Army, including time in Vietnam. In 1969 they moved to St. Paul, where Bill joined the police department in 1971.
In 1979 they bought an abandoned gravel pit in White Bear Township and named it Walton’s Hollow.
“People would say, you’re like Walton’s mountain,” Bill said, referring to a television series created by Earl Hamner Jr. “We’d say ‘No, we’re like Walton’s hole in the ground.’”
They bought Ginger, a Welsh pony mare, to help ease the change to country life for their two young sons. After building a barn, they added chickens, rabbits, ducks, goats, donkeys, calves, potbellied pigs, geese, turkeys, lambs, llamas and the first of the Great Pyrenees dogs.
In 1985 the Waltons hosted the children’s barnyard at the Ramsey County Fair to help the 4-H program.
The show became more popular every year. Soon they were taking animals to schools, nursing homes, theaters, churches, community festivals and employee picnics.
Jean was getting busier as demand for the petting zoo continued to grow. In 1995 Bill took early retirement from the police department so he could help full time.
Now the couple added ponies, followed by Fjord horses. These small, strong draft horses, whose ancestors were used for hundreds of years in the mountainous regions of western Norway, are known for their good temperament. They were quickly put to work pulling wagons and carriages full of riders.
Today the Waltons have a house and barns in Lino Lakes. You may have driven near their 20-acre farm without knowing that you were within sight of ponies, donkeys and llamas. The new Walton’s Hollow is between I-35W and I-35E on 20th Avenue, the southern extension of West Freeway Drive (the road between Coates RV Center and Ziegler CAT).
They bought the Lino Lakes acreage in 2001 and moved in after the house and barns were built, in 2002.
The first barn was completed just before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The building inspector was late for his appointment to look at the new barn that day, Sept. 11.
The next day, the petting zoo traveled to a day care in Woodbury.
“Everyone was upset,” Jean said. She called the day care owner later, saying maybe they shouldn’t have come. Instead, the response was, “Thank God you did!”
“We think we shield our children, but they know what’s going on,” Jean said.
Having the animals come was a therapeutic experience for the children, and the Waltons have found this to be true for all ages. “Friendly animal therapy” is the slogan on their business card.
They visit nursing homes, handicapped homes, day cares and hospice homes.
Autistic kids have a special connection with animals, Jean said. When they took the petting zoo to an autism group in Wisconsin, they brought along a pony and saddle. One boy, who showed little interest in the other animals, was so delighted with the pony that he refused to get off.
Nursing home residents love chickens, Bill said.
“Put a young chick on the arm of a wheelchair, and the mother hen comes flying to join it,” he said.
For senior citizens, the animals bring back memories of their youth, the Waltons said.
“The vast majority in these homes are women. They’ve taken care of somebody all their life,” Bill explained. “Now they’re expected to let people take care of them.”
Bill talked of reading the book “The Eden Alternative,” about providing a home-like environment for long-term care, changing the culture of nursing homes to eliminate boredom, helplessness and loneliness. Taking animals to senior housing fits right in with that philosophy.
A certified evaluator for Therapy Dog International once put a Walton dog to the test, Bill said, to see how it compared to specially trained therapy dogs.
The Great Pyrenees was left with a stranger while Bill disappeared for three minutes. The dog was subjected to a group of people all petting him at once, some of them acting wild and clumsy on purpose. His comfort level with walkers and wheelchairs was measured, and he was told to sit and stay while Bill walked away. The dog succeeded on every requirement.
Bill said the dog did so well that the evaluator came to the farm and tested a llama, rabbits, chickens.
“She thought every animal on the place would pass her test,” he said.
Many of the animals at Waltons’ Hollow have been evaluated by the Pet Partners program of the Delta Society to make sure they have the necessary skills and aptitudes to work with all ages and groups.
Jean told the story of one of the bigger ponies being groomed simultaneously by five people when he was not even tethered.
“He just stood there and let them brush,” she said.
A pony may experience an occasional uncooperative day, and one pony had difficulty with a canopy whipping in the wind, but the Waltons have enough animals to be prepared.
In the past, Bill said, they bought several ponies to find one suitable for a petting zoo.
“You don’t see their true nature for six months,” he said.
They’ve learned a way to prevent that: At end of the summer, they buy ponies that were leased by a summer camp, after first getting a recommendation from the camp director about which ones to buy.
In addition to the animal visits at nursing homes, the Waltons offer a full walk-in petting zoo, consisting of a 50-foot corral with up to 45 large and small animals loose inside.
Double gates let people enter and leave the corral freely while keeping the animals inside. It is often booked for community fairs, carnivals and company picnics.
For large community festivals, the Waltons have a 70-foot corral that holds up to 90 animals.
A smaller petting zoo is popular at day care centers, preschools and nursing homes. It brings a Great Pyrenees dog and up to 20 bunnies, chickens, ducks, baby goats and potbellied pigs in a pen. Three or four larger animals, such as a calf, llama, lamb and goat, are picketed outside the pen with ground stakes.
Bill and Jean provide brushes so that people can groom the animals and appropriate food so they can feed them.
Pony rides can accommodate infants to adults, either hand-led or on a six-pony-go-round.
“We give a lot of first-time rides,” Jean said. “One woman was 43 years old and it was her first ride on a horse.”
“She gave Jean a big hug,” Bill added.
Birthday parties with animals from Walton’s Hollow are a big hit. One mother told Jean, “Usually there’ll be children who can’t come. But nobody said no to this.”
The Fjord horses are used to pull a wagon to give large groups a ride reminiscent of pioneer times or to pull a carriage for small groups.
Petting zoos and pony rides are most popular in the spring, summer and fall. The best time to see new babies is in early spring.
In the winter, the Waltons present live nativity scenes in December. When snow comes, they offer sleigh rides in a four-seater sleigh pulled by two Fjord horses.
Every year the Waltons attend a sleigh and cutter festival. And on the first Saturday in February, they hitch the horses to a sleigh to raise money for 4-H. Last year they brought in $600 in three hours, Bill said.
Someday Bill and Jean may invite folks to Walton’s Hollow to enjoy the animals at the farm. The close proximity of Running Aces and Eagle Brook Church mean people are in the neighborhood. “Someone suggested we put up a sign,” Bill said.
In the meantime, if you want the animals of Walton’s Hollow to come to you, call the Waltons at 651-426-8163 or visit www.waltons-hollow.com.