Just off Hudson Bay Mountain Road sits a farm slightly secluded from the public eye.
Driving up the dirt road to Double D-Lux Trailrides and Petting Zoo, it becomes obvious why children love spending time at this hidden gem in Smithers.
Dogs roam around the 10-acre property freely, chickens cluck away, guinea pigs and rabbits hop together in their cages, goats and sheep lounge around, the two llamas rest peacefully and some 20 horses neigh in the background.
The petting zoo is run by Smithers resident and animal lover Darlene Helkenberg.
Not only is it a petting zoo, but it is also home to the Noble Spirit Program for special needs children in the Bulkley Valley.
“[The farm] is geared toward education,” said Helkenberg. “If you can learn compassion for animals, you can learn compassion for humans.”
Helkenberg has been running the trail rides and petting zoo for the past 15 years in various locations in the area and finally settled on the current property on Moncton Road recently.
“You can fit animals into just about anything that you do in life. It gives people the opportunity to leave real life and it’s something enjoyable that they can watch or be a part of,” said Helkenberg of the Noble Spirit program.
The program, named after one of the horses, has been running for the past few years. It uses animal- and equine-assisted therapy to help children with special needs such as autism.
“I try to make it something that will really benefit the kids but usually they come because there is an indication that they do like horses. Using horses as counsellors is such a nice way of putting it to kids that are saying ‘I don’t want to go to a psychiatrist’,” she said.
“It’s just making a safer environment where kids can be more comfortable talking and really helps them go a little deeper and look at some of the problems they’re having.”
They’ve had a wide variety of people coming up to the zoo, from people completing community service to students getting volunteers hours to people with addictions or fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as kids dropping in just to play with the animals.
According to Helkenberg, animals are generally accepting of everyone, which helps so many people connect with them.
“They’re not [judgemental.] They accept people and they’re very forgiving. If we make mistakes, they won’t hold it against us and there is something about fur, just being able to hold them, there’s something there that’s so rewarding,” she said.
Jessica Horn is on exchange from Germany and has been volunteering at the zoo for the past two weeks.
“I’ve learned so many new things like taking care of kittens and training llamas,” she said. “I think it’s good for kids. You can learn so much just from taking care of something that’s living and horses are really relaxed mostly.”
Kim Connors’ 10-year-old daughter Cassidy has been going to the farm for the past six years.
“It gives them lots of confidence and teaches them responsibility and it’s just great for them to be around animals,” said Connors.
“[Cassidy is] an animal lover; I think it’s the socialization that she likes. We’ve grown with Darlene as we’ve been there and we’ve ended up getting our own horses. We spend a lot of time up there.”
The farm has received lots of support from the community (one of the horse sheds was built by a volunteer while supplies were also donated), said Helkenberg.
However, the cost of running a farm full of animals isn’t cheap and space is becoming limited.
Helkenberg speculated the price of feeding the animals is upwards of $2,000 a month.
“We appreciate the support we’re getting from the community, but we are looking for some board members to turn this into something that is a lot better utilized,” she said. “We’ve just about outgrown this place.”
She said they are currently looking at an 180-acre property in between Hazelton and Moricetown where they could potentially turn it into more than just a drop-in program.
“I would love to see it like a school, something that’s ongoing and that should be a part of our life. There are some kids who hate sitting in school and if they can learn by living on the farm, I would love to see that,” said Helkenberg.