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Frank Gray

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Major, left, a hafflinger, and Wilbur, a paint pony, feed on hay in the horse pen behind Darlene Chrisman's home at the intersection of Winchester and Dunkelberg roads. Chrisman operates a petting zoo with several horses, goats, rabbits and a pig at her home and has had problems with people tampering with her facilities, letting animals free and making negative comments on her business Facebook page, accusing her of neglecting the animals.

Animal lover's petting zoo sullied by false allegations


Darlene Chrisman has lived in the same place just outside the city limits for 20 years, and she says she’s had horses since 2000.

Then, last year, she decided to start a petting zoo, made up in large part of animals she says she has rescued. She registered the name, Whinney’s Wagons, after one of her horses.

The zoo doesn’t operate out of her home. She loads up her animals in a trailer and takes them to various events, including the Three Rivers Festival, county fairs and the like.

Kids can see a pony for the first time, take a pony ride for the first time, get their picture taken on a pony or even kiss a pig. She has a small pig that seems to behave like a dog. It even wags its tail.

The way Chrisman tells it, it’s a lot of work. When she takes the animals to an event far away, she has to sleep with them. Sometimes she doesn’t get home until 3 in the morning, she says, and she acknowledges that coming home with animals can get noisy. Dogs bark, a donkey she rescued brays, horses make the noises that horses make.

Once, she said, one of her goats got out. When you have animals, she says, they sometimes get out, so she improved the fence that kept the goats enclosed.

In the short time she’s been in business, though, she’s had her challenges. She said she was home one day when Animal Care & Control called to tell her one of her horses got out.

No horse is out, she recalls telling them. But she was advised to check, and she discovered that the gate to her corral, which was held closed with a carabiner, was open. The horse was returned home, and now the gate is secured with two padlocks.

Then the door on the cage where she keeps her rabbits was opened, and they got out.

Then a wire on the electrical fence she has around the horse corral was cut. It cost her $75 to have it repaired.

And then, one day, Chrisman said she tied one of her ponies to a fence post and saddled it up, then left briefly to get some gas.

A few days ago, a photo of the pony, saddled and tethered to the fence post, showed up on Whinney’s Wagons Facebook page. Chrisman says she doesn’t know who the poster was, and the photo looks rather cute, actually, but the post accused Chrisman of being cruel and neglecting the animal, leaving it tied up in the sun with no water or feed as punishment for having gotten out. Before long, a handful of other posters were expressing their outrage.

Chrisman hasn’t offered much of a response to the Facebook posts, except to say she wouldn’t respond to haters and wouldn’t be in business long if she didn’t treat her animals well.

Then she called me.

To be honest, I’m not a farmer, a horse breeder, trainer or anything else, but I went out to the home of Whinney’s Wagons and looked around. The horses were eating when I got there, each tied to a different fence post, Chrisman says, so the larger ponies don’t gobble up the smaller ponies’ food.

The horses, or ponies, looked happy. As I said, I’m not an expert on horses, but they looked healthy to me.

She showed me some licenses and documents, including the results of a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection of her operation last month. It found no deficiencies.

I talked to Chrisman’s veterinarian. Has he seen the animals? Is their treatment cruel?

He’d been out there not too long ago to check up on the animals, he said. Chrisman said he gave them their vaccinations.

They’re all a good weight and in good condition, the veterinarian told me. Their feet are in good shape.

But what about being stuck standing in the sun? I asked.

All horses like to stand in pastures all day long, he said. The sun doesn’t bother them.

As far as access to water, horses drink about two times a day, he said. Chrisman has an automatic watering system in one of her buildings. It refills as horses drink. In fact, just after the ponies finished eating on the day I visited, they wandered into a shelter and drank for about five minutes.

So welcome to the computer age. Anyone can go online and say anything they want about anything they want, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Chrisman’s vet was somewhat understanding.

“She’s very exposed,” he said of Chrisman’s property, which borders a busy road. “You can’t do anything without several hundred people a day driving by” and seeing everything you do. It only takes a couple of people to decide they’re offended.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.