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Growing his very own zoo

Arlington man has unique collection of animals

    If you could talk with the animals, they’d tell you their names. Jude the Camel. Rocky the Wallaby. Lurch the Emu. Ollie the Macaw. Dalai the Llama. Roxy the Foxy. They’re all in the menagerie of exotic animals normally not seen outside of a metropolitan location but now living on a rural Sibley County farm, less than five miles south of Arlington. Christian Lilienthal’s growing zoo farm family also has llamas, kangaroos, ostriches, peacocks, parrots and others who are available for family or organizational tours and are part of his Animal Talks educational programs that appeal to audiences of any age with facts and stories from around the world. Animal husbandry has been a part of Christian’s life ever since he was young, when he began raising pheasants during his middle school years. Having grown up on his parents’ beef cattle farm, there also were plenty of dogs, cats, ducks, swans, turkeys and chickens running around too. “Pheasants probably were my starting point,” said Lilienthal, now age 26. “They were easy to raise, and I enjoyed their beautiful colors, and I just kept going from there,” he said. A graduate of Sibley East High School who earned an FFA American Farmer Degree, he attended the University of Minnesota, and his interest in exotic animals developed when he applied for an internship in Sydney, Australia, during 2007-2008. While working at Sydney’s Ocean World he was part of the curatorial and exhibit staff. There he helped feed sharks, crocodiles, sea turtles or stingrays and worked with pythons, squids and octopuses. When he returned to the states, the 2009 U of M agriculture major obtained his USDA zookeepers license and started his exotic animal zoo in a converted former hog barn on his parents’ farm. “We got out of raising hogs about 15 years ago, and this building was being used just for storage. So with pens facing a southern exposure, it worked well in becoming a home for the animals,” he explained. As a zookeeper, he’s also licensed by the state for special species and is required to have a second fence, at least 6 feet high, around the pens to keep the animals safe from predators or unwanted personnel. There are also very strict animal welfare requirements, disease management and a lot of inspections, plus regular veterinarian visits for animal health checkups. He mixes a lot of his own feed for the animals but is able to buy his kangaroo food that’s made by a Minnesota company and sold through a commercial business in Gaylord. The shelter accommodations for his animals have helped them adapt well to Minnesota’s winter climate conditions. He has a 2 ½-acre pen for the animals and 3 acres for his newly acquired threesome of albino whitetail deer. “The kangaroos have an insulated pen with a space heater, but they like the sun,” explained Christian. “It can be cold outside, but if the sun is shining, they’ll be out and about, but if the temperature is warmer and it’s cloudy, they like to be inside.” “Jude” the camel has no real issues as she sheds hair in the spring and grows a thick coat in the fall. “But they have soft pads on the bottom of their feet, so you have to watch for any foot problems when it gets really cold,” Christian noted. He says what’s interesting about camels is that their milk stays good for eight to ten days in 85-degree heat without a need for pasteurization or refrigeration. His young kangaroos get special treatment to help them become comfortable with visitors and noises they might experience when attending shows or exhibits. “When they’re about 6 months old, I’ll take them into my house and start bottle feeding them. They’re with me all the time. They eat every three or four hours until about 10 months old. It’s fun to watch them hop up the stairs needing just two jumps but then need all 16 steps to go back down.” Each animal or bird has interesting stories and facts to share. For example, emu’s like to sit down to maintain body heat and cool off by standing up, and they like being outside, too. They have claws on their wings, are flightless and breed during the coldest time of the year. The male sits on the eggs and doesn’t leave the nest to eat or drink for 56 days. The emu chick is over a foot tall when it hatches. His first acquisition and his favorite is Rocky the wallaby, who arrived on the farm while Lilienthal was still a student at the U of M in 2009. “He has a very muscular body, curious, friendly and a distant relative of the kangaroo,” Christian noted. Another is the silver fox which Christian says he can hold for over an hour while talking at a nursing home. “I can’t even hold my cats that long,” he laughed. She’s got a beautiful sliver-black coat and puffy tail with a little white tip on the end. When not entertaining guests she likes to roll around with the farm dog, Spud. Through his Animal Talks program he enjoys sharing his knowledge by speaking and showing a mix of selected animals to groups at fairs, formal presentations, community celebrations and other events, along with frequent classroom visits for students. He entertains all ages – small children, teenagers, parents and seniors. “It’s something fun to do; it’s a love for animal learning and is a good outlet to teach.” Christian has traveled to six of the seven continents, having recently returned from Antarctica. “A lot of time when I do presentations it will include travel-related experiences,” he said. “I’ve checked out zoos in other countries, and it helps me to be more of a qualified caretaker and opportunity to interact and have fun with a lot of different people as an education presenter,” he said. Having his zoo comes with a lot of responsibility for the animals he cares for, but he finds it all worthwhile as he continues to learn about different animals and share what he’s learned. But his zoo is just one of his jobs. He’s also an agricultural extension educator in Nicollet County and farms with his dad, growing 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans and raising 800 beef cattle annually. He and his wife, Jena, live on a separate farm site, just a mile from the home farm. “My family is really a blessing, working with the animals to fill in on days I’m not here,” he added. He believes his love for teaching and communicating developed in part through being an ambassador while in 4-H and in being a state officer serving as FFA president. “I’m interested in science and biology and that helps to teach people about the animals as I guess I’m the local expert now,” he commented. Entering it’s fourth year, Christian says the zoo is slowly progressing. “It’s not a showplace yet, but I’m taking it slow and my goal is to add more animals, build my infrastructure and mobile exhibit to focus more on Australian animals,” he stated. To have a farm zoo experience and visit the animals up close, Christian says it’s best to make an appointment for the onsite guided tour. His facility is designed to accommodate walking as well as bus tours for the elderly or mobility challenged during a one hour visit to see both young and adult animals. To make an appointment, go to the website: or call 507-381-0582. Donations are accepted to help with animal care expenses.

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