By Mike Surbrugg

WYANDOTTE, Okla. - A love of animals is apparent at Virgil Holden's The Critter Farm, a 38-acre spread near Wyandotte.

Holden, 65, started the enterprise four years ago to have something to do in retirement. "I love animals. I like to go to animal auctions and swap meets," he said.

He was raised on a farm at Sarcoxie, Mo., and farmed and worked in town jobs all his life.

His wife died in 2003.

The Critter Farm is part of a nationwide industry of such enterprises supported with trade publications, associations and technical information about different breeds of birds and other animals. "When somebody calls me for an animal I don't have, I'll find it for them," he said.

There is an exception. "I don't mess with snakes. I draw the line on snakes," he said.

Pasture chickens have a big role. He sold 4,000 live or dressed fryers last year. He gets fryer chicks from commercial hatcheries. "They often hatch more chicks than they need to be certain they have enough to fill orders. I get these extra chicks," he said.

His farm is a source of meat for a growing Hispanic and Asian population in the area. "People are not aware of all the diversification we have here. Different ethnic groups like to eat what they ate back home," he said.

To that end, he also sells goats, hogs and poultry to Hispanics.

Some residents from Asia prefer Muscoby ducks that have colored meat with less grease than other types of duck, he said.

His "livestock" inventory at different times can include cattle, turkey, sheep, emu, llama, goats, pigeons, doves, ostrich, guineas, ducks, geese, rabbits, chickens and an assortment of pigs.

"I do not have a zoo," he said.

His expertise comes out when talking about his business.

"It is raccoons, not skunks that kill chickens. Raccoons drink the blood because they have no saliva glands. They do not eat the entire carcass. A skunk is most likely to eat eggs and when it gets a bird, it eats everything," he said.

The best protection for critters is a Great Pyrenees guard dog that is not a pet. It needs to always be outside to keep raccoons, skunks, other dogs and coyotes away. If you make a pet out of it, it is worthless for protection.

"Without my dog, raccoons would be my biggest problem," he said.

His biggest concern are hawks that fly in and out.

How much he pays for birds and other animals depends on the rarity of the animal and its source. Volume dealers can have lower prices, he said. The price for a bantam chick can range from $3 to $5, he said.

Chicks can be shipped without need of food or water for 72 hours after hatching. Prior to emerging from the egg, a chick will absorb the egg's yolk that sustains its life for up to 72 hours.

Turkeys present their own challenge. "A newly hatched turkey has to be taught to eat or it can starve to death standing in a feed trough," he said.

Chickens and turkey should not be housed together. Chickens are immune from a disease that is fatal to turkey, he said.

He has never seen a sick guinea. Guinea genetics are close to its ancestry that required birds to survive in the wild. These genetics have not been lost through cross-breeding to alter genetics to get birds for specific uses, he said.

"Man has screwed up a lot of critters," he said.

Chicken facts

Some of the information he passes along about chickens:

Genetics in chicks from a commercial hatchery cause these females to not sit on hatching eggs. Some smaller birds are better for brooding.

You can tell if a hen will have white or brown eggs by looking at its ear lobes. If the lobe is white, it will have white eggs and if it is red, the eggs will be brown.

There are at least 50 breeds of big chickens and within each can be 10 to 30 varieties.

There are about 75 breeds of bantam and an average of 10 varieties within each breed. There are 40 varieties of English game chickens.

Source: The Critter Farm

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