LACEY SPRING — When Bobby Morris retired from his dairy farmer lifestyle, the thought of slowing down didn’t fit the bill.
“I was looking for something to do in life,” the Broadway resident said.
With experience working with animals under his belt, he decided to open Grampy’s Petting Zoo featuring animals he rescued.
What started with a handful of birds quickly grew into a sanctuary for pigs, miniature horses, sheep and many more at Camp Horizons in Rockingham County to feel loved possibly for the first time in their lives.
To spread the love, Morris made his petting zoo a traveling petting zoo, bringing animals to local schools, events and community gatherings.
“I was at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community recently, and a 92-year-old lady was sitting there in a wheelchair and she held [Alfredo, the pig] for a solid hour and a half and it was just so amazing,” he said.
Morris also partnered with Massanutten Technical Center to provide a farm program this year, saying it was something he hoped to bring again next summer.
As his petting zoo grew, it gained the attention of staff at Camp Horizons, a campground east of Lacey Spring that becomes a home away from home for hundreds of children during the summer.
Morris said one day a staff member from the camp approached him asking if he would be interested in starting a farm program at the camp, allowing him to expand his petting zoo.
“The experience of working with these kids day in and day out is amazing, and I have enjoyed it,” Morris said.
When Morris first started the program three years ago, Trey Smith, summer camp and outdoor training center director at Camp Horizons, said Morris had many ideas for kick-starting the farm program.
“Bobby was like ‘I have all these ideas’ and he started rolling with them, and I was like ‘Bobby, I don’t know how popular it’s going to be. We won’t know until a year or two from now how this is going to pick up,’” Smith said.
One season later, Smith told Morris to do whatever he was planning on doing as the program became the most requested at the camp.
“We literally were running back-to-back-to-back,” Smith said. “This is his full-time gig.”
Through the farm program, Morris said he tries to teach campers about where their food comes from and where the animals on the farm are from, saying he “tried to include a variety of things.”
“It amazes me that so many of these kids that come in here have no clue of where anything comes from,” Morris said.
Morris said he also sees a lot of campers who have never seen some of the animals he has at the petting zoo.
“I had a 20-year-old up here just this past week from our Job Corps center and he said ‘I’ve lived in New York City and have never experienced animals like this.’ So that is what has made this so much fun,” Morris said. “And in today’s society, I think it is important that kids get to see this.”
During the summer, he includes an incubator at the farm to allow campers to watch the process of eggs hatching.
“It never ceases to amaze me the fascination of kids picking up a baby chicken,” Morris said. “We also have baby calves here in the summer so they learn how to feed to baby calves with the bottle.”
Summer camp director Liz Heilbronner said that when campers first arrive, “you see the kids basically run to the farm.”
“When they come in and see a miniature horse or alpaca, they are like, ‘I didn’t even know these animals were really real,’” she said. “The excitement that they have and the passion Bobby brings is a really cool thing.”
Heilbronner said another aspect that makes the program popular are the animals.
“When you go to sleep-away camp, you are leaving your pets at home, and then you get here and sometimes kids are homesick and you bring them to the farm and they get their thumbs sucked on by a cow when suddenly it’s fine,” she said.
For Smith, the knowledge Morris brings to the program is what has made it stand out.
“It is something like this where you get to spend a day with a farmer who has been doing it for 30 years and has a level of knowledge you can’t get in a book,” Smith said. “The kids know Bobby is authentic. … He brings his own knowledge and experiences, and they love Bobby.”
With Morris’ knowledge, the program becomes a lesson in the same way the farm becomes the classroom.
“It’s not just a petting zoo. We have videos, and we sit down as a class with curriculum,” Smith said. “It comes with lessons and teaching and again, with Bobby’s knowledge, it is worth while.”
While Morris may be creating memories for campers, the experience of teaching campers new things is something Morris can never forget.
“It does something to you, and it is something hard to replace,” Morris said. “There are things like that I will cherish for years.”