JUST FIVE MINUTES WEST OF CADILLAC, MICHIGAN
OPEN DAILY 10:00 A.M. - 6:00 P.M. MEMORIAL DAY THROUGH LABOR DAY
PHONE 231-775-3700

Traverse City Record Eagle

            OFFBEAT PETTING ZOO

Johnny’s Wild Game Park attracts 15,000 visitors each year

 

This should be the time of year when folks who own summer tourist attractions work their hardest.

Not so with Brian Johnson, the caretaker for Johnny’s Wild Game and fish Park, southwest of Cadillac.

During the summer season, he hires several high school and college students to help him take care of the deer, goats, buffalo and dozens of other game, farm and exotic animals and birds.

“Now, I can take care of some maintenance,” Johnson said.  “And we can get away a little bit.”

Johnny’s is an off-beat petting zoo set off the beaten path and surrounded by woods.  There’s a stocked trout pond, 10-cent feeding machines and a goat who crosses a bridge and pulls a pan up to his perch by a line when people put handfuls of corn in it.

The park draws about 15,0000 visitors per year, Johnson said.

The 37-year old Johnson has taken care of the park’s animals for most of his life.

His grandfather, Herb Johnson, started the park in the 3qrly 1960’s on land he owned at the headwaters of the Pine River.

Her Johnson, who owned Johnny’s Restaurant in downtown Cadillac in the 1940’s, designed the park with its ponds and extensions of the Pine River and had contractors build it.

Brian Johnson began helping his grandfather feed and care for the animals when Brian was only 5 or6, he said.

He was only 10 when his grandfather died and a large part of that job went to him.

“I was the only one who really knew about their care and feedings,” he said.

His grandmother, Ruth Johnson, ran the park until she retired a few years ago.  Other family members keep the park’s books or help out with special projects, but most of the animal care has been and still is in Brian Johnson’s hands.

For years, he’s made sure the 45 animals that there year-round have been fed, vaccinated and wormed.

He also sees to it that the male deer get their antlers cut off before mating season so they don’t fight and hurt each other.

He also feeds the animals in the winter, taking pails of food on a snowmobile from pen to pen, usually in the dark after coming home from his job running the customer service department for Avon Technical Products.  If he wants to get away during the winter, he has to find someone to take care of the animals.  Usually he rounds up relatives or teen-agers who live nearby.

In the spring he trains the staff to take over for him for the three months of summer.  Most of the seasonal employees return year after year, some working there every summer through high school and then through college, he said.

With the well-trained staff in place for the season, he can now step back a little from taking care of the animals.

That doesn’t mean he can stay away from the park.  He’ll spend the next couple of weekends rebuilding parts of the goat bridge in hopes of reopening it before the really busy tourist season gets under way about mid-June.

But it does mean he and his family can more easily get away for a few days of camping, he said.

Though it’s hard work, Johnson said that’s part of the reason he still does it.  Now that his sons ages 9 and 11, are old enough to help, he likes to keep them busy to teach then a good worth ethic.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve stayed,” he said.

And his sons enjoy it despite the hard work.

“I think it’s fun to be around the park and all the animals,” said Zack Johnson, 11.

What about the people?

He shrugged.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

But his father said seeing people enjoy the park is one of the rewards of running it.  He enjoyed seeing the parking lot full this weekend until it started raining.

“It definitely gives you a boost to have a apart in something that can be shared by so many people,” Brian said.