Away in a manger

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DeFuniak Springs ranch provides Christmas animals, year-round fun.

Annie Blanks @DestinLogAnnie

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — When they’re not away in a manger during a live Nativity scene in Fort Walton Beach, the animals of Bethlehem graze on a cozy farm just north of Interstate 10.

On a chilly Friday morning, farm manager Josh Nelson and his dog, Rusty, walk around Rocking B-A-B Ranch, which is owned by retired Fort Walton Beach doctor Billy Buckelew and his wife, Jane. The farm is home to an array of sheep, camels, goats, horses and cows along with some more exotic animals like peafowl, wallabies, ring-tailed lemurs and hedgehogs.

“We breed and sell many different types of animals, including several farm animals as well as exotic animals,” Nelson said as he stood in front of an enclosure with albino wallabies. “We also offer school field trips in the fall and in the spring, and we have several events throughout the year.”

Every Christmas season, some of the farm animals follow the star from DeFuniak Springs to Fort Walton Beach, where they’re used at First Baptist Church’s live Nativity scene.

“It’s our gift to the community,” Buckelew said of using his animals for the live Nativity. “It’s part of our mission to spread the name of Jesus.”

Rocking B-A-B Ranch was established as a small cattle ranch in 1979 and has since grown to a 310-acre farm where livestock and exotic breeds coexist. While not open to the public on a day-to-day basis, the farm has recently begun hosting school field trips. It also is perhaps best known locally for its annual “Farm Day” in October, where thousands of people come together to tour the farm, eat a pot luck supper and have fun on the ranch.

Nelson has overseen the farm since 1991. Its primary purpose, he said, is breeding peafowl, which are sold to people who want them as pets. The ranch’s peacocks were also featured in the 2011 film “We Bought a Zoo” starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.

“There are only two farms in America that (breed peafowl), and we hope to populate the world with them,” Nelson said. “Some people collect cars, some collect horses … in some parts of the world, it’s still a sign of wealth and prestige to own peafowl. Arabian countries are a big market for us.”

Nelson said it had been a dream of his to open up the farm to school field trips, something they started doing this past year. During the months of April, May and October, Nelson takes groups of schoolchildren on walking tours of the ranch and lets them interact with the animals while also educating them about their habitats, characteristics and demeanor.

“The kids are wild when they get here, they’re so excited,” Nelson said. “You can hear the kids when the buses pull up, just screaming. They enjoy it so much. Most of them can’t identify a goat or a sheep or a cow because they’ve never seen them before, while some of them are surprisingly educated about animals. It’s interesting to see how much they learn when they come up here.”

On Friday morning, after making the rounds to feed the animals, Nelson made his way to the ring-tailed lemur enclosure to hand-feed the critters breakfast. Grapes and bananas, the lemurs’ favorite, were on the menu.

“These guys have babies sometimes, and we let the kids pet the babies,” he said as a lemur reached out of the fence and grabbed a green grape with its hand. “The kids just love them.”

Visitors can also pet and interact with the farm’s pair of friendly camels, Georgia and Naomi, as well as the three tortoises, several miniature horses, free-roaming goats and baby hedgehogs, as well as any of the other animals who are willing and comfortable around humans.

“The farm is just Dr. Buckelew’s dream come true,” Nelson said. “It’s a great thing for the community and a great thing for the animals, and we just hope to continue to grow and offer more programs in the future.”

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