Local News Matters weekly newsletter

Start your week with a little inspiration. Sign up for our informative, community-based newsletter, delivered on Mondays with news about the Bay Area.

Local News Matters Arts & Entertainment newsletter

End your week with a bit of culture to unwind and refresh. Sign up for our surprising and inspiring options in our weekly newsletter, delivered on Thursdays with news about Bay Area arts and entertainment.

If you like 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, although animals are usually found in enclosures. It’s not a working farm, although there are sheep and goats and miniature horses to admire. But there are plenty of animals to see, and volunteers to help kids and adults enjoy them.

Staffed primarily by teen 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 bigger animals such as goats, sheep, miniature horses and alpacas. The menagerie originally started more than a decade ago to bring joy to children with special needs. But cofounder and president Vicki Amon-Higa said the staff realized that many children benefit from being around animals.

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

Subscribe to our weekly arts & culture newsletter

Animal Assisted Happiness is located inside Sunnyvale’s Baylands Park, which is operated by the city of Sunnyvale and county of Santa Clara. It is located near Highway 237, and close to the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

“We have a very whimsical farm, that’s been designed, created and built by kids, for kids,” Amon-Higa said.

The whimsy is everywhere, from painted stones that mark the paths through the property, to red polka dot mushrooms near a bird bath. A light blue bench is next to a colorful picket fence painted in pink, yellow and green. Goats and sheep graze in front of mock Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz settings. A Hollywood sign looms over goats. Rabbits are lodged next to a building called the “Bunny Reading House.”

Signs provide basic information about the animals. One reads: “At Smile Farm, we also have alpacas! Alpacas are native to South America. Alpacas communicate with each other and 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 to visit 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 out to local schools and health facilities for visits with children.

Goats enjoy feeding time at Animal Assisted Happiness in Sunnyvale. The animal sanctuary was launched as a way to connect children with special needs with animals. (Larry Sokoloff/Bay City News)

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

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

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

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

Hand-painted signs direct visitors to various enclosures at Animal Assisted Happiness in Sunnyvale. (Larry Sokoloff/Bay City News)

Volunteers and community donations are a key part of Animal Assisted Happiness.

“Of our 6,000 registered volunteers, 62% of them are 6th to 12th graders who come without parents,” Amon-Higa said. Teens can do farmyard chores or join a more formal youth ambassador program.

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

Adults are welcome to volunteer as well. 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 more than 15 years ago in the Los Altos Hills backyard of Vicki Amon-Higa and her husband, Peter Higa. It became a nonprofit in 2009, and now operates on a budget of $280,000 a year. As the program became more popular, it moved to sites in Gilroy and Sunnyvale, before landing at Baylands Park in 2017. They are now on $1-per-year lease at the site until at least 2027, Amon-Higa said.

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