By the time Kerry Ervin, owner of Hand Me Down Zoo, was 10 years old, she was picking up stray alligators in Florida.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for things that can’t necessarily fend for themselves, especially once they get into a human environment,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been focused on my entire life. It’s not just being around animals, but making sure other people understand what they’re doing when they are around them.”
Hand Me Down Zoo is a sanctuary for exotic animals that also offers an educational program developed to teach children to embrace and respect animals in their true form.
The sanctuary sits on a 14-acre property in Winder and is home to more than 250 animals and more than 100 different species. At the entrance building alone, there are tortoises, snakes, rabbits, chinchillas, iguanas, sugar gliders, goats, rabbits, Bengal cats and more.
Ervin is a sergeant in the army reserves and her husband is a detective with the Gwinnett County Police Department. They support the sanctuary mostly out of their own pockets, Ervin said, offsetting some of the costs by offering tours and occasionally seeking help from the public for emergencies.
“I keep tour fees low to allow even those in lower incomes to be able to enjoy our property,” Ervin said. “Thankfully, most of our visitors don’t ask for change and would rather donate on top of their tour fee to help support us.”
Ervin said some of the animals come from out of state, but most are legal exotic animals that were surrendered in Georgia. She said the animals end up being surrendered because many people buy animals around Easter time or even “pandemic purchased” animals and then have to give them up because they no longer have the time or ability to care for them.
The sanctuary accepts volunteers, but Ervin is the sole employee and tour giver. On a recent Monday, she was up before 10 a.m. cleaning the animals’ enclosures, putting together salads and feeding the animals.
As she went about her duties, she spoke to the animals and treated them to some of their favorite snacks. She let the Fennec fox pick out three or four live roaches and let the two kangaroos in the back of the building munch on animal crackers.
While Ervin enjoys being around the animals, she doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of owning exotics. The bruises on her arm Monday were from kicks Chester, the kangaroo, gave her when he got his shots, Ervin said. She doesn’t hide them.
“We value that there’s reason to have these animals in captive environments for the survivorship of their species, but not every home is necessarily an appropriate home,” Ervin said. “A lot of people see these animals in a two-minute YouTube video, which is a wonderful shot of that animal’s day, but it’s not necessarily a realistic capture of what it’s like to take care of them.”
Hand Me Down Zoo, therefore, takes an interactive approach for visitors. One party at a time is allowed on the property and by appointment only so that people have a chance to touch the animals, learn about them and see what they’re like when they’re fully grown, things people don’t normally have the opportunity to do at pet stores or Repticon, Ervin said.
“When I moved to Georgia I came to the quick realization that Georgia is not really exotic-friendly, which is fine,” Ervin said. “There’s good reason for that; however, because it’s not exotic-friendly there’s not a lot of education for the animals they do allow to be here like guinea pigs, rabbits and reptiles.”
The sanctuary’s educational program is called Breaking Disney. Ervin said she visits schools to read children’s stories. Afterward, they compare what the stories made the animals seem like versus what they are like in real life using some of the animals from Hand Me Down Zoo.
“As children, they’re kind of force-fed these stories that they’re supposed to be owning exotic animals,” she said. “Like, Curious George is a chimpanzee in a Manhattan apartment. So we’re trying to break some of that thought process.”
Hand Me Down Zoo also offers comfort and handling classes for people with phobias trying to get over them, as well as safety classes to learn to identify venomous and nonvenomous snakes.
Ervin said this will hopefully help keep animals from being placed in the wild or from going into animal control systems that aren’t equipped to handle them. Instead, she hopes she can help find them the correct owner.
As she spoke, a three-legged squirrel named Pirate Pete jumped on her and walked along her arm. Pirate Pete is one of the non-releasable state wildlife animals that will permanently remain at Hand Me Down Zoo.
A few weeks ago, another permanent resident, a three-legged opossum named Ellie Bear, passed away. She arrived at the sanctuary with her mom and seven other siblings four years ago. Three of the opossums had superficial injuries from being attacked by another animal, but only two were released when they healed.
“We knew she was getting older,” Ervin said. “Doesn’t mean anybody was ready for her to be at the end of her journey, but she did live a nice hearty life for an opossum. They don’t typically live past two years out in the wild.”
Ervin said her passion is making sure people understand animals in the way the animals need to be understood versus how people want them to be understood.
The entrance fee for Hand Me Down Zoo is $8 for adults, $5 for children 13 years and younger, and free for children 3 and under.
To book an appointment or to sign up to volunteer, contact Ervin on Facebook @HandMeDownZoo or email firstname.lastname@example.org.