RUSO A visitor to Rocky Top Ranch certainly enters an unexpected world. The ranch doesn't have the usual cattle and horses associated with ranching. Instead the fenced enclosures contain miniature horses, goats and donkeys, wooly alpacas and llamas.
Smaller pens are home to strange appearing ducks, pot-bellied pigs and even turkens a large chicken-like bird that is a cross between a turkey and a chicken. There's Jacob sheep too, multi-horned and colorful animals whose domestication dates back thousands of years.
The Rocky Top may be a ranch by name but its mixture of exotic animals makes it wildly unique. That's exactly what owners Dennis and Karla Erickson enjoy.
Dennis Erickson, Rocky Top Ranch, enjoys a moment with a week old miniature leopard apaloosa. Erickson raises exotic animals at his Ruso area ranch and operates a petting zoo.
"It got so addictive to us. We just love it," said Dennis Erickson. "We love going out and sharing our ideas with kids."
Dennis works at Gaffaney's in Minot and Karla at a nursing home in Velva. They share a common joy of animals and in teaching others about their unique livestock.
"She was just as crazy as I was, animal crazy," laughed Dennis Erickson. "We got married in 1984 and bought a farm in 1986. She suggested we do a petting zoo. Well, this is our 24th year on the road."
Dennis Erickson said he remembers thinking that the petting zoo idea was "crazy" but now Rocky Top Ranch and their menagerie of exotic animals has become in demand at various festivals, parades and fairs.
"It started out as a hobby farm and now the petting zoo starts about the 7th of June and goes until the middle of October. We're booked up," said Dennis Erickson. "We love seeing smiles on faces. I guess that's one reason the wife and I don't want to give it up."
The Ericksons say their petting zoos are not only for fun. They also consider the zoo a learning tool, using their appearances to carefully answer each question from children and adults about unusual animals that they have probably never seen before. Favorites of the children, says Dennis Erickson, are the alpacas and miniature horses. The latter is a favorite of the Ericksons too.
"This little fellow is just a week old," said Dennis Erickson while carefully cradling a miniature leopard apaloosa. "He's really colored unique. It's really hard to find black and white leopards."
Other exotic animals at Rocky Top include pygmy goats, Nigerian goats and fainting goats. There's also road runner ducks, crested ducks, magpie ducks even a snow white chinchilla. None of the animals fit the image of the typical ranch. That's what the Ericksons enjoy and enjoy sharing with others.
"It's fun. It's really relaxing," said Dennis Erickson. "My wife is just as nuts about this as I am. She'll spend hours with the animals."
Earlier this month the Ericksons hosted an exotic animal sale at Rugby Livestock Auction. Despite unseasonably cold weather over 400 people attended the sale, evidence of the interest in the unique animals raised at Rocky Top Ranch.