Sophia Oster, 12, slowly approaches Jasmine, gently slipping a pink halter around the llama’s head in her family’s 19th-century barn outside of Fredericktown, Ohio (pop. 2,493).
“She’s a good girl,” says Sophia, before leading the tall, long-necked animal to a livestock trailer. “People always like to pet her.”
Once the llama is secured in the trailer, Sophia scurries around the barnyard rounding up chickens, goats and rabbits for her father, Michael, to transport to First Friday, a monthly community event on the public square in nearby Mount Vernon, where she regularly displays her mobile menagerie.
Sophia launched Sophia’s Petting Zoo in 2007 for the Fredericktown Christmas Walk. The event previously had featured farm animals, but when the petting zoo owner withdrew, the enterprising youngster decided to start her own.
“She said, ‘I want to bless the town with a petting zoo,’” recalls her mother, Valerie, 45. “She had her heart set on it.”
At the time, the Osters had one llama, one lamb, one goat, a few rabbits and chickens, and only a Honda minivan to transport the animals.
Sophia, though, was undaunted. Her dad said if she earned $50 by doing chores, he would contribute another $50 to buy fencing material for the zoo. Together in the dining room, dad and daughter built an 8-by-8-foot square frame with plastic fencing purchased at a local hardware store, and they painted a wooden sign pink and added yellow lettering to promote “Sophia’s Petting Zoo.”
They removed the minivan’s back seats, spread a tarp, loaded the animals and took the zoo-on-wheels to the holiday event on Main Street. The petting zoo was an instant hit.
“All the kids really liked it,” Sophia says. “They especially liked the rabbits, since they could hold them.”
Today, the Osters’ 23-acre farm is home to 15 chickens, two goats, two horses, six llamas, eight rabbits and 24 sheep, and Sophia and her younger sisters—Isabella, Gabriella and Olivia—are responsible for feeding, watering and tending to the animals each day.
Valerie says the petting zoo is a perfect way for Sophia to learn about a variety of subjects—animal care, biology, math and marketing—while having fun. “It’s just a good experience for her,” says Valerie, who homeschools her daughters. “It’s learning community service, it counts as school, and it’s good business training.”
During the last four years, Sophia has exhibited the family’s animals more than 30 times, including at a church social, birthday parties, nursing homes and other events.
Sophia typically charges $60 to $70 per event, and she keeps detailed records of earnings and expenses, including $5 to occasionally rent one of her sister Olivia’s rabbits or $10 to pay her sister Gabriella for doing “llama PR” at the events—telling people, for instance, that llamas generally are mild-mannered and typically don’t spit.
The budding entrepreneur loves sharing her animals with others. “I like seeing the kids when they come, watching them hold the animals,” says Sophia, who is considering studying veterinary science in college. Otherwise, “they really don’t have the chance to be around animals.”