EATON — A new petting zoo has opened in Eaton for children and families to enjoy. Safari Junction (2961 U.S. 127 South) is a longtime dream of Jamie and Dianna Beneke, who since 2008 have owned and operated Valley Exotics Zoo, a “mobile zoo” which travels to events and institutions for educational and recreational purposes.
More than two dozen species can be found at Safari Junction, from familiar domestic critters like cows, goats, sheep, and miniature pot-bellied pigs to animals from far corners of the globe like ring-tailed lemurs, kangaroos, capybaras, and a peacock.
Jamie, who has worked with animals since joining 4H at age 9, tours the country with animals from Valley Exotics. They’ve visited fairs and festivals from Maine to Texas, providing up-close experience and knowledge, as well as occasional comfort — he is regularly hired by colleges and universities to provide students with cuddling creatures for stress relief during exams week.
“When the animals aren’t out, though,” said Dianna, “they’re here with us and we’re taking care of them. Preble County needs a place to interact with animals on a regular basis, so we wanted to open up a permanent facility where people can come and take part in that.”
The facility opened to the public on Mother’s Day weekend, and has since hosted over 200 visitors. The property sits on 10 acres, and the Benekes have major plans for its future; a perimeter fence and gift shop are currently under construction, and new pens are being built to replace temporary ones. Future plans include an education center and a 30-foot, indoor-outdoor gazebo for the lemurs.
Dianna, a high school math teacher at Twin Valley South, gives guided tours of the facility, with assistance from sons Jake, 11, and Wyatt, 8. (Daughter Zoey, 4, is frequently along to help feed the creatures.)
“When you go to big zoos,” Dianna said, “if you have a question, there’s nobody around to answer it. But here, we give a guided, hands-on tour with the animals, and we teach you as we go through.”
Safari Junction is currently open by appointment only; appointments can be made at 937-545-5175 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @duanteb_RH.