Nichole Toney insists it all started when she and husband Chad inherited a bit of family property in North Carolina. A few chickens and a dog quickly followed. Then things snowballed.
“We all love animals,” she says with smile. “But the problem is we all love different animals.” At first, the family simply joked about starting a petting zoo, but as time went on the idea took hold. A visit to a petting farm in Ohio sealed the deal. Today, Brackett Town Farms serves as a free, therapeutic petting farm focused on helping those with special needs, grief and mental health issues.
“Animals have the amazing power to heal the heart and create a special connection,” Nichole explains. At Brackett Town Farms, those connections happen as visitors learn about the farm’s animals through educational, hands-on, small-group tours and summer volunteer work programs.
Caring for all the farm’s 80 animals means long hours, but Nichole wouldn’t have it any other way. “This is my calling,” she emphasizes. “I get to see children’s joy at learning about new animals and developmentally disabled adults laugh while they play fetch with our farm dog.”
Of course, the animals who call Brackett Town Farms home bask in all that attention, save for a grumpy hedgehog and a few alpacas. The pigs relish belly scratches, the goats compete for head pats and the miniature donkeys are always underfoot, trying to get a few cuddles, too. Little wonder that amidst all that love, Nicole has witnessed plenty of personal breakthroughs.
She recalls one developmentally disabled woman who found her voice at the farm. “She visited with each of the animals and had a wonderful time,” Nichole remembers. During her time at the farm, she even spoke several complete sentences – something her caregivers had been working on for nearly a year. It turns out, all she needed was few Brackett Town animals to serve as conversation partners.