Stressed out, man made big career move
“It was therapy for us,” said Randy, referring to himself and his wife Marilyn, “and good for the kids too. It kept them involved and taught them about responsibility.”
The family began accumulating “fun” animals in the early 1980s. They took family trips to look at other animals to purchase. Soon, owning these exotic animals evolved into breeding and selling them. They found that they enjoyed learning about and raising the different animals, and sometimes even thought of their hobby as “collecting” animals.
“Just like when you’re collecting quilts, you look for that ‘perfect’ quilt,” said Randy, smiling. “We enjoyed looking for ‘something different’ to round out the collection.”
Over the course of many years, the family raised camels, reindeer, elk, several varieties of deer, as well as ostriches, emus, rheas, various waterfowl and potbelly pigs. At a certain point, friends and acquaintances began to request the use of their animals for birthday parties and to promote local events. From there, the fun family hobby morphed into a family business when Randy’s daughter Karla developed a traveling petting zoo. Karla traveled all over the five-state area with her animals, setting up at shows, fairs and private events. When the Mall of America wanted a permanent petting zoo, it was Karla who got the contract, although she later sold her petting zoo to someone else; the Mall of America eventually decided not to keep the zoo open. Karla then became instrumental in setting up a zoo in the Brainerd area.
Kelly is remembered fondly by her former co-workers in Little Rock. “Kelly was a fantastic vet tech!” said Syd Tanner, the Little Rock Zoo’s curator of primates, reptiles and the farm. “She was well-educated and knew what she was doing – and she figured it out if she didn’t know it.” Everyone, said Syd, was upset when Kelly eventually decided to move back to Minnesota.
The Little Rock Zoo actually purchased almost all of the animals for their Farm area from the Heds. According to Syd, the zoo purchased two African pygmy goats, three baby doll sheep, one miniature zebu, two miniature horses, and two miniature donkeys from the Heds. All the animals were females so that the zoo didn’t have to worry about breeding, Syd explained. “Randy said he could bring down a male if we decided to breed the animals.”
The Heds traveled to Little Rock five times while Kelly worked at the Little Rock Zoo. With a family member on staff, the Heds had a perfect chance to see the animals behind the scenes. “The animals behave differently when they’re not in public,” said Randy. He reminisced about the white rhino named Dudley that used to come up to the fence and want to be scratched behind the ears. “We were a strange family, I guess. We loved seeing the behind the scenes parts of the zoo.”
The family also found that raising exotic animals was an interesting way to meet people from all walks of life. Of course, it was especially exciting to hobnob with celebrities, such as the late actor Dennis Weaver, who they met when they were selling llamas. Weaver was considering purchasing a llama at the time. The Heds also attended a sale where Michael Jackson was expected to make a purchase. They spent time getting to know one of his animal trainers but were disappointed when Michael Jackson didn’t get out of his limo.
Celebrity status extended to the animals the family owned as well. At one point, the Heds owned a foal that was a descendent of one of Elvis Presley’s miniature horses. And the Denver Broncos animal mascot, Thunder, was the sire of another of their horses.
In the mid-1990s, Randy and Marilyn built a new home and established Misty Creek Ranch north of Dassel. It sits on more than 40 acres of hills with a creek running through the property. With outbuildings and pastures set up for the animals, it is an idyllic central Minnesota setting. For close to 20 years, they continued to raise exotic animals on the ranch. But as they began planning for retirement, the Heds decided to sell their home and build another nearby. They sold all their animals and readied the ranch for sale. A snag in their plans occurred when the sale of the ranch fell through in a soft real estate market….and it was back to the drawing board.
Retirement is calling now.
“But I am ready to not have to do anything,” said Randy.
In the meantime, they have agreed to let their grandchildren use the outbuildings to keep their own exotic animals. The Heds’ grandchildren (daughter Karla’s children) saved up their money and bought a herd of miniature donkeys and some pigmy goats. So the buildings are in use again, both as kennels for the boarding business, and as shelter for the grandchildren’s exotic animals.
The beauty of Misty Creek Ranch could be seen clearly on a cloudy August afternoon, as a herd of donkeys clustered on a hill in the south pasture; a pygmy goat grazed near the pond, and a great blue heron waded quietly in the shallows.