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A petting zoo in miniature 

Tanglewood Farms and more

The middle of nowhere isn't what it used to be.

Nestled among the rolling hills of Cherokee County, Tanglewood Farm is appropriately situated along a winding road, many country miles from the nearest interstate.

A few years back, Tanglewood Farm and its environs undoubtedly would've seemed the epitome of unspoiled bucolic remoteness, a rustic outpost a world removed from the fragmented sight lines and staccato traffic of urban living.

How times have changed. Nowadays, getting to Tanglewood Farm entails driving through a nearby golf-resort community and passing by a treeless subdivision in the throes of build-out. A mile down the road, construction is well under way on an elementary school so large it could double as a zeppelin hangar. "Your SPLOST dollars at work!" touts a plywood sign.

So why would anyone drive 45 minutes due north of Atlanta, past a growing collection of strip shopping centers and fast-food joints that serve as a reminder of the insidious creep of exurban sprawl, to reach this semi-pastoral setting?

Did we mention that Tanglewood Farm is a baby animal petting zoo? Actually, make that a miniature baby animal petting zoo. If you want to rediscover your childhood fondness for barnyard creatures that are arguably too cute to live, this is a good place to start.

From the road, Tanglewood looks like any other working horse farm -- that is, until you happen to spot the adolescent buffalo grazing in the pasture. The gravel driveway leads to a horse corral that's been converted for duty as a parking lot, and the first thing you notice as you pull in is the row of mock storefronts designed to look like the main street of a Western frontier town, complete with a saloon, hotel and a general store -- all set to a background of bluegrass music piped over the speaker system.

Like the latest "Hello Kitty" collection, most everything about Tanglewood Farm is designed to push the acceptable limits of cuteness. Apart from the friendly manx cats that wander the grounds, nearly all the beasts and buildings on display here are miniaturized versions of the familiar.

Just how miniature are we talking? For starters, whoever named these animals apparently raided their thesaurus for synonyms for "small." There are African pygmy goats -- not to be confused with the Nigerian dwarf goats. There are "Babydoll" sheep, whose coats might yield just enough wool for a set of leg-warmers. And there are even potbellied piglets no larger than a loaf of bread.

Also present is the same miniature Shetland pony that made a brief appearance in OutKast's "Ghetto Musick" video, walking out of a dog carrier into the arms of a woman visibly overwhelmed by its flagrant adorability. Carrying through the farm theme means there are no exotic animals like monkeys or kangaroos, only miniature livestock -- although you'll find alpacas, quail and even Jack Russell terriers.

With its robust, open-air vibe, Tanglewood Farm doesn't bear much resemblance to the roadside petting zoos that many of us still remember fondly from family vacations. Our parents begrudgingly allotted us 10 minutes to fondle a squirming bunny or poke at a mangy owl because, otherwise, our whining would've ruined the rest of the trip.

It wasn't until years later that we realized that being chained by the leg inside a small cage behind a Sinclair filling station off the cloverleaf probably wasn't the most therapeutic environment for a black bear cub. It's perhaps indicative of our PC-conscious age that Tanglewood and other area petting zoos are scrupulous about listing the various registries, breeders groups and local chambers of commerce that would seem to indicate a certain standard of care for the animals.

Indeed, all of the residents look healthy, if utterly filthy. This is a farm, after all, so don't plan to swing by still wearing your church duds (unless you're Unitarian, of course). The petting areas are a series of small corrals linked by gates and populated by socially compatible animals, such as a melange of potbellied pigs, a baby goat, the aforementioned pony and a large and lazy rabbit ironically named Tiny -- a gift from a Tanglewood visitor, explains farm owner Michelle Bolt.

As you enter each corral, be prepared to become friendly with its occupants, especially if you're carrying one of the tin pails filled with bread for sale at the entrance. Sheep follow you around the pen, whether you call them or not. If you stand still, the pigs will root their snouts, dirty and moist with a who-knows-what blend of viscous substances, against your shins. If you crouch to pet a piglet or cluck to a miniature chicken, a goat will put his forefeet on your knee so he can look you in the eye.

It's unavoidably true that Tanglewood Farm, like any other petting zoo, is unmistakably scaled toward children, with such offerings as pony rides and birthday parties. Most weekday mornings, the place is overrun with school groups. This month, the farm takes on a pioneer theme, with spinning wheel demonstrations and panning for gold (with prices for the yellow stuff closing at $657 an ounce last week, good luck!).

But if you want to play out your Dr. Doolittle fantasies without kids underfoot, show up after lunch, when the animals are able to offer their undivided attention. Depending on your own personal tolerance for cuteness, you may choose to visit soon, while most of the miniature animals born this spring are still babies.

Just remember to look both ways at the golf-cart crossing on your way home.

For more info, visit the Tanglewood Farm website at www.tanglewoodfarmminiatures.com.

Petting Zoos in metro Atlanta

Zoo Atlanta

800 Cherokee Ave.

404-624-WILD

www.zooatlanta.org/animals_petting_zoo.htm

Yellow River Game Ranch

4525 Highway 78, Lilburn

770-972-6643

www.yellowrivergameranch.com

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