Experience area close-up: Animal Encounters

Animal Encounters opened at Conner Prairie in 2007. This area allows guests to get up-close with rare breeds and learn about the role these animals played in 19th-century Indiana. 

By Hannah Kiefer
For the next few weeks we’re taking a close-up look at an experience area that many of our guests know and love: Animal Encounters!

Conner Prairie has a history of agriculture. William Conner himself kept livestock and farmed the land near where Animal Encounters is today, and before Conner Prairie was a museum, we were a farm. Developed by Eli Lilly, Conner Prairie Farms began in 1934. The farm raised Percheron horses, Shorthorn cattle, Berkshire hogs, and Shropshire sheep. In the words of Lilly, “The quality of our livestock was second to none.” In 1964, Conner Prairie became a full-fledged museum.

Our Animal Encounters experience area opened in 2007 with the intent of helping to bridge the disconnect between people and agriculture that has developed in recent decades. Additionally, heritage breeds were selected to help support the goal of educating guests on what life was like in 19th-century Indiana.

In Animal Encounters, guests can interact with and learn about rare breed animals, including our Arapawa goats. There are less than 300 Arapawa goats left in the world. 

Classification by breeds as we think of them today was not as formalized in the 1800s. Because of this, our agriculture staff was tasked with deciphering different historical descriptions of animals and finding livestock that best fit those descriptions. The rare breeds we raise at Conner Prairie today include Tunis sheep, Arapawa goats, English Longhorn cattle and Ossabaw hogs. Though popular historically, these animals are very rare today; there are fewer than 50 English Longhorn cattle in the United States and about 300 Arapawa goats in the entire world. These historically significant breeds have important genetic diversity and traits that will be lost if the breed goes extinct.

In the Animal Encounters barn, guests can get up close and touch several of these rare breeds. However, the barn is just a small portion of the working farm that exists at Conner Prairie. Three full-time staff members and many more part-time and volunteer workers care for all of the animals on the property while also serving as blue-shirt interpreters in the Animal Encounters barn. Our Youth Ag Captains also help with these tasks.

Although Conner Prairie focuses on history, much of the work done in Animal Encounters also has an eye to the future. One of our Ossabaw hogs provided genetic material to a genetics bank via Purdue University, so that the genetics of the herd are forever preserved. Earlier this year, we had an English Longhorn calf born via embryo transfer to a Shorthorn cow, using cutting edge technology to save old breeds. Our Agriculture Staff is constantly looking at how the care, management, nutrition, health, and genetics of our own herds can be improved.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at the breeds, activities, and history in Animal Encounters. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to learn even more about this area of Conner Prairie.