Meet the animal rescuer who has set up a mobile zoo and petting farm in Yorkshire

Snakes, lizards, tortoises and shrews are not standard fare for any Yorkshire-based livestock farmer but these have become as much a part of Joe Hodgson’s daily life as his more traditional farm animals and all are now primarily responsible for his income and are largely from animal rescues, waifs and strays.

Joe has animals and reptiles of all kinds on his small rented acreage in Great Ouseburn which over the past decade has become an ever-expanding menagerie and he has been steadily carving out a reputation in educating all ages through both sets of species with his Joe’s Exotic Mobile Zoo and Joe’s Mobile Petting Farm, and has more recently added alpaca and llama trekking into his mix.

“I knew I was going to be a farmer all my life,” says Joe whose father John was a dairy and sheep farmer in Silloth on the Solway Firth in Cumbria, and his father and mother Christine had, and his mum still has, a Shetland pony stud, breeding ponies.

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“When you’re brought up with any kind of animals it can be hard to shake it off, but I never wanted to and never really saw myself as not being a farmer even though I was a chef for a few years having gone to Carlisle College to study,” says Joe.

Llama and alpaca trekking brings in income for the animal rescueLlama and alpaca trekking brings in income for the animal rescue
Llama and alpaca trekking brings in income for the animal rescue

“My main aim and the thing that really gives me that desire for what I do is taking the animals out with me so that everyone can learn more about all of them and if they are interested in developing that interest further, I can help them in how they will look after and care for them.

“We go into all sorts of places from taking them to parties, to educational sessions at primary schools and secondary schools, and into nurseries for sensory sessions, where the really young ones can see, feel and touch the animals.

Joe’s interest in all creatures in addition to farm animals that he’d been around since being born started when he worked at a wildlife sanctuary in Cumbria for around five years, but his work with exotic animals began to grow when he started his own private rescue of animals when he had moved to Yorkshire, firstly to Pateley Bridge before settling at Great Ouseburn.

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“I set up as a private rescue centre for anything animal and as it turned out reptile and birds of prey, literally all kinds of unwanted pets and waifs and strays. That was in 2014,” says Joe.

Joe Hodgson and his partner Vikki Martin, of Northlands, Great Ouseburn, near YorkJoe Hodgson and his partner Vikki Martin, of Northlands, Great Ouseburn, near York
Joe Hodgson and his partner Vikki Martin, of Northlands, Great Ouseburn, near York

“I would take anything in from dogs and cats to exotic animals, birds, farm animals and it got to the point when I had that many coming in that I had to fund it in some way. That’s when I started with the education side. It just seemed a natural move. If I can use an animal or reptile in the business I do, but if I can’t it will still live with us for the rest of its days. It’s not about the money. I don’t do the rescue side in order to do the education.

Joe looks after everything at Great Ouseburn with his girlfriend Vikki, who pitches in with the alpaca and llama trekking and feeding the animals.

“I’ve never looked back since starting,” says Joe. “I totally love what I do and seeing the excited faces of the children when we take the animals into the schools is so rewarding.

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Joe offers his Exotic Mobile Zoo and Petting Farm out for any event. These all generate much needed sources of income in order that he can keep and feed everything, and make a living, but he stresses that every event he undertakes is with a serious concern for the welfare of his animals and reptiles, and that every occasion is also another opportunity for people to learn more about how to look after them.

Joe Hodgson, with a Burmese pythonJoe Hodgson, with a Burmese python
Joe Hodgson, with a Burmese python

“We certainly don’t go out and put snakes around people’s shoulders or offer any opportunity for that kind of thing,” says Joe.

“We qualify that as abuse. I always teach others to respect animals. They are allowed to hold the snakes and lizards with their hands, but in a caring, considerate manner.

“The only reason anyone really wants a snake around their neck is for a photo opportunity and that’s really not the point of what we do.

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Joe says the Exotic Mobile Zoo is the most popular part of his business.

“We don’t have anything that will cause problems. Another common-held thought is that the snakes are going to be wet and slimy. When they hold them it dispels a lot of what people assume and many really enjoy holding them. I also explain that if the snakes were poisonous we wouldn’t be there with them, as we wouldn’t be able to handle them.

“The snakes we have are corn snakes, royal python, Burmese python, King snakes, hognose snakes.

“The thing to remember is that every animal or reptile may bite if it feels under pressure or is not handled correctly.

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Possibly Joe’s most unique mammal is also one of his smallest.

“We have a tentrec, which is like a hedgehog or shrew. It is native to Africa. We got it from a breeder in Liverpool a couple of years ago and at that time the species was quite rare, but most zoos have them now. They’re nocturnal.

Joe’s trekking activities start at the driveway to his smallholding and are conducted on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“We have nine alpacas, all the Huacaya breed, and they are all males. We also have two llamas, also boys. They’re all gelded and have either been bought or rescued from stud farms. They also come out with me as part of the petting farm experience. We started the trekking nearly three years ago and it’s proving really popular.

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The rest of Joe’s menagerie includes: horses, ponies, donkey, pigmy goats, nine sheep including Valais Blacknose, Shetland and Mule-crosses, ducks, chicken, geese, turkeys, a ria (small ostrich), rabbits and guinea pigs.