Petting Project

A day outdoors with spoiled-rotten babies, frisky pigs, and chatty birds sounds like heaven? Well, there's a little patch of it smack dab in the middle of South Florida's farm country at Patch O' Heaven Petting Farm, a one-of-a-kind, hands-on animal sanctuary nestled in South Miami-Dade's Redlands.

The farm, originally built in 1962 by Hugh Matheson (as in Matheson Hammock Park), changed hands in the early Eighties, becoming "Elaine's Little Patch of Heaven." After Hurricane Andrew demolished South Dade in 1992, owner Elaine Spear tried to recoup some of her losses by opening the farm to the public as a "living museum," shortening the name to Patch O' Heaven. Here parents can rest peacefully -- or not -- while kids whoop it up, exploring a vast menagerie of exotic and domestic animals, including Pooper, the talking cockatoo that shrieks, "hello" at the front gate.

Guide and host "Mom" Elaine spoils her baby animals as well as her guests, giving children of all ages firsthand experience of life on a functioning farm minus the dirty work. "Chores" include pony and hay rides, dancing, picnics, and organized games. While the young ones are playing duck, duck goose or tug o' war, parents can dance the macarena or vice versa.

The sizable petting area allows all kids, great and small, to meet a range of creatures, from sheep, donkeys, calves, goats, and pigs, to rabbits, ferrets, hedgehogs, and surprisingly docile "bearded dragon" lizards. On the surrounding farm more than 65 species of rare and domestic beasts and birds roam twenty acres of native hammock land. Yogi the honey bear, Key Deer Bambi and Rudolph, and Bernia Banana Capuchina the monkey are just a few of the spoiled-rotten babies; those who ask for them by name are sure to get a free pony ride. (Actually rides are free with admission.)

By the number of adorable little critters strolling around Patch O' Heaven, it's apparent that a lot of heavy petting goes on here. Spear is a U.S.D.A. licensed and insured breeder, and some of her animals are for sale. For some the lure can be irresistible: Many a visitor has gone home the proud owner of a baby chick or a potbellied pig.

But the opportunity to commune with nature so easily may not last. Patch O' Heaven recently received citations from Miami-Dade County for "unusual use" of agricultural land and needs local support to stay open. "We are appealing the citations because we feel Team Metro has made a mistake," says Spear, who claims that as an educational center, her operation is an "extended arm of agriculture." If Team Metro-South Dade doesn't agree, she says she'll have a tough time affording a land variance that would allow her to stay open as an attraction. According to Spear: "It would be a shame to have to shut down the gates of heaven."

-- Stacey Steig

Patch O' Heaven Petting Farm, 21900 SW 157th Ave, is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Admission is $8. Call 305-247-1947.

 
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