“The Smile Farm” animal sanctuary brings joy to children and adults

If you enjoy visiting animals, consider spending an hour at Animal Assisted Happiness in Sunnyvale. It’s an animal sanctuary designed with a touch of whimsy, with fun and smiles in mind.

The 2.5-acre site defies easy categorization: it’s not exactly a zoo, though the animals are usually found in enclosures. This is not a working farm, although there are miniature sheep, goats and horses to admire. But there are plenty of animals to see and volunteers to help kids and adults enjoy.

Staffed mostly by teenage and adult volunteers, Animal Assisted Happiness is home to a whole collection of animals. There are guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens, doves, finches and ducks as well as larger animals like goats, sheep, miniature horses and alpacas. The Menagerie began over ten years ago to bring joy to children with special needs. But co-founder and president Vicki Amon-Higa said staff realized that many children benefited from the presence of animals.

“We call ourselves the smile farm,” she said. “We just want kids to experience the smiles only animals can bring.”

Animal Assisted Happiness is located inside Sunnyvale Baylands Park, which is operated by the City of Sunnyvale and Santa Clara County. It is located off Highway 237 and close to the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

“We have a very whimsical farm, which was designed, created and built by children, for children,” Amon-Higa said.

The whimsy is everywhere, from the painted stones that mark the paths through the property, to the red-spotted mushrooms near a birdbath. A light blue bench is next to a colorful picket fence painted in pink, yellow and green. Goats and sheep graze in front of the faux backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. A Hollywood sign overlooks the goats. The rabbits are housed next to a building called “Bunny Reading House”.

Signs provide basic information about the animals. It reads: “At Smile Farm, we also have alpacas! Alpacas are native to South America. Alpacas communicate with each other and with humans by making sounds. Alpacas live for about 20 years.” Other signs have QR codes that provide more information.

Animal Assisted Happiness welcomes the public on Tuesday afternoons and the second Sunday of each month. As many as 400 people show up then, Amon-Higa said.

The farm also sends its animals to local schools and health facilities to visit children.

“Our mission is youth with needs,” Amon-Higa explained, noting that this includes children in pediatric daycares and autism centers, as well as regular primary schools. Children with special needs are also invited to private field trips to the farm.

Amon-Higa pointed out that Animal Assisted Happiness is not a working farm.

“We are not a petting zoo,” she said. “We don’t allow you to feed our animals.”

But children, under the supervision of volunteers, are welcome to get up close to animals such as guinea pigs, birds and rabbits.

Volunteers and community donations are a key part of animal-assisted happiness.

“Of our 6,000 registered volunteers, 62% of them are students in grades 6 to 12 who come without parents,” Amon-Higa said. Teenagers can do household chores on the farm or participate in a more formal Youth Ambassador program.

“We’re the best place to volunteer, especially during a pandemic, because we’re outside on two and a half acres in the fresh air,” she said. “People have a lot of space to be outside of each other.”

Adults are also encouraged to volunteer. Many come from nearby tech companies. Adults are needed to help with outreach visits during the school year, Amon-Higa said.

Animal Assisted Happiness began over 15 years ago in the Los Altos Hills backyard of Vicki Amon-Higa and her husband, Peter Higa. It became a non-profit organization in 2009 and now operates on a budget of $280,000 per year. As the program became more popular, it was moved to sites in Gilroy and Sunnyvale, before landing in Baylands Park in 2017. They now enjoy a $1 per year lease on the site until ‘in 2027 at least,’ Amon-Higa said.

Animal Assisted Happiness is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month. Visits are free, although donations are accepted. Parking costs $6 per vehicle. For more information or to schedule a visit, call (650) 887-0887 or email [email protected] To donate, volunteer, or take a virtual tour, visit https://animalassistedhappiness.org/.

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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.