Joe Hedrick likes to joke that he’s a “distant cousin of a fellow named Noah who had a big boat.”
While it might take a minute to figure out the connection, one good look at Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Reno County is enough for most visitors to see that while the diversity might not equal Noah’s Ark, it’s enough to bring the “two of every species” to mind.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with animals ever since I was a kid,” Hedrick says. “It was natural that once I got a llama, other exotic animals became my life’s venture.”
Naming all of the species that the Nickerson entrepreneur owns requires an animal dictionary.
“I don’t know the number of animals here, close to a thousand sometimes. It varies with babies arriving all the time,” Hedrick says.
While the exotic animal farm draws plenty of attention, there’s a far more traditional thread to Hedrick’s life story.
“I grew up working with my family at rodeos throughout the Midwest,” Hedrick says. “My dad, Jerry, started out competing in rodeos, then became a clown and finally announcer with contract entertainment.”
The Hedrick rodeo family lived in a travel trailer and performed in a different town every weekend.
“My older brother, Jerry Jr., and I became clowns following in Dad’s boot steps,” Hedrick says. “We did trick roping and with our sisters presented a variety of trained animal acts. I had a guanaco, a cousin to the llama, that was the first animal I trained personally.”
Hedrick attended Fort Hays State College on a rodeo scholarship riding rough stock and continued to work as a clown. He met and married his wife, Sondra (Hutchins), a barrel racer, at Fort Hays State.
After graduation, Hedrick taught high school industrial arts, clowned some and did contract acts while continuing to expand the exotic animal population with antelope, elk, deer and a chimpanzee. There were soon zebras, giraffes, camels, kangaroos, ostriches, reindeer, potbelly pigs, tortoises, additional llamas and more.
“I bought, sold and traded exotics with zoos, owners and breeders all over the country,” he says.
Displaying his animals for grand opening of Harry Herbel’s Surplus City at Herington was the start of Hedrick’s Petting Zoo.
“We’ve had four petting zoos on the road going all over the United States through a booking agent,” he says.
He supplies the petting zoo annually for the Kansas State Fair, where the pony rides have always been popular. In recent years, camel rides have also become an attraction at the fair and other venues.
Hedrick expanded into raising his own exotic animals.
“We started out with two zebras, and now have about 50; two camels and now 70. A couple kangaroos, now I don’t know how many,” he says. “It became complex scheduling tours, so we renovated a farm building into a bed and breakfast. Visitors can look out their windows and see all of the animals.”
Hedrick says he first observed pig races at a convention Hedrick attended.
“The crowd just went wild and I knew we should do that,” he says. “Our racing pigs have been popular throughout the country, even on red carpets of swanky hotels.”
Ostrich, camel and zebra races with Hedrick’s animals thrill nationwide community gatherings.
“I’ve been contacted about doing a reality show featuring animal races which I think will develop,” he says.
Each Christmas season, Hedrick provides animals for nativity scenes across the country and works animal acts with the Radio City Rockettes in New York City during the holidays.
Hedrick says the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact this year, cutting into the six dozen engagements he normally has on the calendar.
Farming, ranching too
There are some side gigs that help Hedrick finance his passion for exotic animal acts. He is a professional auctioneer and farms several thousand acres.
“We have a stock cow herd, about 200 head, and background the calves to sell as yearlings,” he says.
Dedicated workers help get everything done.
“We’ve had more than 40 employees sometimes, but about half that now. I truly appreciate their hard work,” Hedrick says. “This is a family business. My wife handles the bookwork and has her helping hand in everything. Sondra is especially good birthing animals.”
Their son, Aryn, was a champion bull rider and works all aspects of the operations. Daughter Hallie lives with her family at Lawrence but has an important part in the home operations through modern technology.
“Our five grandchildren are also involved. Some of them might even end up in rodeo and show business,” Hedrick says.
At 76 years old, Hedrick says there is no slowdown in sight for him.
“I have a lot more entertainment ideas up my sleeve. It’s been a great life. I was born a showman and always will be,” he says.
Buchman is a Flint Hills rancher. He writes from Council Grove.