By Elisha Nelson
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Emus have interesting hairstyles, kind of like a soccer mom who has been out in the summer sun watching her kid play ball all day.
So do alpacas, plus they spit at you.
And a marmoset monkey named Kiera. Yeah, she has separation issues.
The emus, alpacas, the monkey and other members of the menagerie that 20-year-old Sara Gilliam owns each has their own personality quirks. Sara, a curly headed and bright-eyed Huntland High School graduate with a passion for taking care of animals, knows each of them well.
She spends much of her time on a variety of activities, from corralling the Irish wolfhound pups that she sells to tending to a cranky emu with a staring problem. And there’s Joe the camel who always wants a drink. She tilted a Sprite bottle back for a gulp as the young camel that has turned more into a bull lately eagerly awaits the drink. It’s unclear if its water or the carbonated beverage, but either works for Joe, who is eight feet tall.
“I spend a lot of time out here. If I’m not working, then I’m here, I spend about 2-3 hours a day interacting with the animals.”
For Sara, or as some know her as “Sara without an h,” tending to her variety of animals is more than just a hobby. She grew up riding horses and after graduating from high school decided she wanted her life to be surrounded by animals of all breeds. Since she was a little girl, she dreamed of having her own zoo and some would argue she’s well on the way to establishing one at her menagerie near Huntland. Her paying job is buying and selling horses a job she loves even when certain horses are difficult to handle. They do test her, however. She said she nearly lost two front teeth after a painted horse bucked her off, planting her face first into pavement.
She began to acquire unusual animals in 2019, when she graduated from Huntland High. A marmoset monkey named Keira came first.
“I’d always told my family since I was a little girl that once I graduated, I wanted to have a monkey, and then there was a pet store in Huntsville that opened and they had a sale on opening day,” said Sara.
Keira, a 2-year-old marmoset monkey who is roughly the size of an avocado became Sara’s constant companion. Kiera chirps and coos sounds like birds and her curious nature leads her to playing with the screen of an iPhone or affectionately grooming her person for imaginary insects.
Sara said most of her zoo crew will eat the same feed, a mixture of grain and alfalfa. In an average month her various animals gobble up 250 pounds of feed, racking up a $300 bill on average.
Sara walked over to her mare Gypsy, putting her hand against its black muscular neck while the mare pressed her teeth into the wood of the fence. Gypsy has a problem with cribbing, a compulsive behavior where she nibbles on her stall door. Despite the horse’s love for chewing on wood, Gypsy is known, Sara said for riding as well as any show horse, with an elegant gait.
Perhaps the most low-maintenance member of Sara’s collection of exotics is a 6-year-old kangaroo who arrived at the menagerie as a joey. He likes to sunbathe a lot.
There’s never a dull moment at the farm. Murph, the emu sporting a jet black mohawk doesn’t take kindly to the tom turkey that teases him with gobbling from afar. Or any bird for that matter. He also enjoys the chase of butterflies on occasion.
Sara offered her feathered friend a bottle of water and the emu swallowed eagerly.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey, an alpaca stared from a distance, drawing visitor’s eyes to his chronic underbite and unwavering gaze. He’s described by his owners as a “hateful alpaca,” judging silently from a safe distance. You could almost hear the wind whistle between his ears , as if not much was going on in his brain.
“I’ve always wanted a zoo of my own, and having animals of all different kinds can be really fulfilling,” said Sara.
Surprisingly, only the monkey requires a permit to own. “I don’t have to have any permits except for her which is a state permit that cost $31 a year.”
Somewhere on the farm there had to be a troublemaker, and a mischievous fox fits the bill. Oliver, a silver fox sits in the arms of his mother, but they don’t seem to resemble one another. He scampered around the house, climbing furniture and marking his territory on everything in sight. “He doesn’t really like new people coming in the house, especially men. If you were to go in the house, he would probably pee on you. I can tell him to sit and that’s the only trick he does, but he listens to me and knows his own name. I’ll tell him ‘Boy, you better get down’ and you’ll hear him hit the ground like he knows. We love him like crazy, but I would not recommend a fox to anybody.” The fox calmly gazed up as hands reached out to stroke his head, appearing no different than any overzealous dog. Oliver has taken on the role of mentor to wolfhound pups that are also permanent residents. The fox is called “Uncle Oliver,” said Sara.
She spends roughly three hours a day feeding, watering and giving attention to her many animals, but her favorite is a goat named Trouble. With a precious temperament and a small stature, Trouble was invited in the home as a permanent resident. She lost him after an incident where he scaled a fence and was attacked by a dog but remains one of the most memorable animals in Sara’s life. “He has and always will be my favorite ever.”
Sara said having the responsibility to care for so many animals is not for everyone. But it suits her. There’s nothing like, she said, looking out to see a camel patrolling his pen, an emu happily chasing after insects or a kid-loving kangaroo lazily slouching on the ground getting much-needed shuteye. It’s her dream fulfilled.
Elisha Nelson is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.