Critter Barn a Gem that Teaches Public ‘Miracles’ of the Farm

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Critter Barn Cutline No. 1(from left): The late Florence Henderson and Critter Barn executive director Mary Rottschafer with the Christmas Bunny. Mary Rottschafer compares her three-acre farm to a precious stone that offers the public year-round lessons in agriculture, compassion, life and death and yes, even a front-row seat to miracles.

Just don't make the mistake of calling Rottschafer's Critter Barn, 9275 Adams Street in Zeeland, a petting zoo.

"I feel there's a gem here that unfortunately society doesn't have much access to," said Rottschafer, the Critter Barn's founder and executive director.

"The Critter Barn is a educational farm that teaches children agriculture, how our food is raised and how creation sustains us because that was the plan from the Garden of Eden," continued Rottschafer. "We minister to a lot of children who are less fortunate or are challenged. We give God the glory for the farming community and help kids experience the miracles of the farm, which are unlimited in number throughout the year."

Mrs. Brady

Since its founding in 1984, the Critter Barn has grown to include teaching age-appropriate education classes and godly lessons about creation, hosting an annual living Nativity and a three-day day camp for children called the Critter Camp, offering a place for people to serve their community sentences, and cherishing warm memories of a movie partially filmed on the Critter Farm featuring the late Florence Henderson of "The Brady Bunch" fame.

There's more to the Critter Barn than giving children and adults a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about farm animals, which in Rottschafer's case include ducks, sheep, broiler chickens, kitties, donkeys, cows, horses, calves, calves, pigs and goats.

A 12-member staff and volunteers help keep the Critter Barn running.

Traditional farm stock

Critter Barn Cutline No. 2The Critter Barn has traditional farm stock that includes ducks, sheep, chickens, kittens, donkeys, cows, horses, calves, calves, pigs and goats. "We have traditional farm stock," said Rottschafer. "That means chickens that give us eggs, broiler chickens that give us meat, turkeys that give us meat, sheep and goats of which there are many breeds, horses ,cows, pigs rabbits, cats and Nigerian dwarf goats."

"We can go to a zoo and see a Bengal tiger and exclaim isn't that gorgeous?" added Rottschafer. "But when you interact with an animal (at the Critter Barn) and take a head and rub it against you, I'm not going to do that with a Bengal tiger at the zoo. I have a cow and when we call her name, she bellows and comes up to the fence. She's like a big dog."

The many facets featured at the Critter Barn include:

Unconditional love and compassion

Animals have a way of conveying love with no boundaries. "I see children who are troubled and come from abusive situations garner self esteem," said Rottschafer. "Sometimes you don't need words. We had a little boy with an 18th chromosome visit here talking to sheep. This little boy seldom speaks and the little boy's mother shot video of him and she was crying because he was talking and sharing about his disease with this sheep."

People interacting with animals brings out empathy and compassion. "There's a window there to God's attributes," said Rottschafer.

Lessons about food's origins

For some children, the Critter Barn is the first time they become aware animals are killed for food. How this reality is taught must be tempered with the right words, said Rottschafer.

Critter Barn Cutline No. 3Mary Rottschafer holds a Barred Rock Rooster. His name is Sterling “because he’s worth a lot,” she said. "If you just coldly tell a child what we're eating tonight is a pork chop that used to be Betty Lou out in the backyard, I think you can traumatize a child if it's handled wrong," she said. "I think we've been able to help children through that reality and I think if you can work through something difficult and help them understand with a more gentle approach, rather than coldly, it's better for the kids.

"I've had very interesting discussion with my pastor about this: In order to live there needs to be sacrifice and that can be applied on many levels, even to Jesus Christ."

Realty check

Hens lay white, brown and green-shell eggs, but they are all essentially the same for eating. Adults don't always understand this fact.

"You cannot believe the ridiculous reasons people believe there are brown eggs or white eggs," said an exasperated Rottschafer. "I have women who swear the only reasons you have brown eggs is because the white ones got bleached.

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"And there's always this thing: What's better the brown egg or the white egg? I love it when I'm asked what am I going to do with the green eggs? With the araucana chickens from the orient originally, they are green and it's a hoot. And there's the lesson. It's doesn't matter what color your shell is: We're all the same on the inside."

Living Nativity

Each year thousands of families make their way to the Critter Barn for the annual Live Nativity, which features animals from the Critter Barn farm, Christmas stories, music and a cast. Critter Barn's Live Nativity 2017 featured cows, a donkey, sheep and goats.

Community Service

Rottschafer works with the court system for people who want to do community service in lieu of going to jail. "Some of these people really need to be taught a lesson," said Rottschafer. "Some people who got a DUI (driving under the influence) or break probation get 360 hours (of community service). We're 'married' to them, and if they have another job, they'll sometimes come two to three times a week for a year and a half."

The "Christmas Bunny" film

The movie was directed Grand Rapids-born director by Tom Seidman and starred Florence Henderson. It was filmed in Lowell, Alto, Wyoming and Rottschafer's Zeeland farm in 2010 and released in 2011. The movie won a pair of awards at the International Family Film Festival in Los Angeles.

"Tom's goal was to make a wholesome movie that mentioned God, that mentioned prayer," said Rottschafer. "It's an excellent move about a little girl not treated well by her mom who she reaches out to an old lady called the Bunny Lady."

Henderson portrayed the Bunny Lady.

"Talk about a professional," said Rottschafer. "Florence walked in totally in character and ... knew what her lines where."

In the end, learning is what continues to draw people to the Critter Barn, said Rottschafer, because many people who now live in urban and suburban neighborhoods have lost touch with agriculture's root.

"Learning is like a renewable resource," she said. "It is the electricity that draws people in. That's the success of the Critter Barn. We might be having fun with the kids but on a higher level, the adults say 'I learned so much.' Part of that is the fault of our society and the ignorance that's out there because most people, through no fault of their own, just don't know very much. Come over here: They're bound to learn something."


(616) 748-1110.
Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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