ARLINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) – This month, high school students in southern Minnesota will have a kangaroo, a fox and an armadillo in their classroom. In June, a nursing home will get a visit from a tortoise, a parrot and a dingo.
It sounds strange, but it’s possible because of one guy who’s believed to be one of the youngest zookeepers in the country.
Christian Lilienthal, 27, has always been into animals, but his camel, llamas, emus and other exotic animals are relatively new to his family’s farm in Sibley County. He’s collected about 40 different species in the past few years.
He grew up around horses, cows and pigs, and always enjoyed talking about them.
“Showing at the county fairs, bringing animals up to the Minnesota State Fair, people ask a lot of questions about the animals you bring up there,” he said, “and it’s just kind of a natural progression, I guess.”
In 2007, he was a junior studying Agriculture Education at the University of Minnesota when he joined a study abroad program in Australia. He worked with sharks, tortoises and other animals at a zoo in Sydney, and it had a big impact.
When he returned to Minnesota, he started raising a wallaby in his dorm room.
“I’d take him for walks,” he said. “He’d come with me all over the place.”
In the years since, his fascination with exotic animals has grown into what’s now a private zoo, officially licensed by the USDA.
His animals include “Dalai the llama,” “Bingo the Dingo” and “Jude the Camel.”
“Jude came from another USDA licensed and inspected facility,” Lilienthal said. “All the exotic animals that I have are. She came from Perry, Okla.”
Lilienthal now gets hired to travel with his animals, sometimes setting up a fenced-in area for guests to walk through.
“They’re mixed in with trees and rocks and plants, and they’re interacting with each other and swimming in ponds that I bring in,” he said. “I really put a good display together.”
Being a zookeeper keeps him busy, but it’s still just a side job. He’s also an Ag Production Systems educator for the U of M, and plans to continue farming.
“I don’t think this will be my full-time job, but it’s probably what I’m going to be known for,” he said.
All the animals require different kinds of food. Some eat mice and crickets, while others eat hay and grains. But Lilienthal was pleased to learn he could order a Purina line of kangaroo food through his local feed mill.