SENECA – The reindeer herder sits at the head of the long table in the large barn he has built for overnight guests.
Phillip Licking is swatting the flies and drizzling barbecued potato chips with Dr Pepper, the staples of the slim 60-year-old bachelor’s diet.
You can call him Flip – everyone does – thanks to a cousin who couldn’t spit Phillip out.
Flip loves those hundreds of acres in Thomas County, where he raises animals you’d expect to find roaming the savannahs of Africa or the mythical North Pole, not near the highway. 2.
Safari in the Sandhills is a wide-open ranch in cattle country with no cows in sight, where Flip Licking built this barn and cozy cabin, turned a corn cradle into a perch to watch bison, hauled to his house childhood, saved a one-room schoolhouse, built a sand volleyball court and swing bridge, and installed a swing set with his mom’s name — Jackie — welded to the top.
“When I was 5, I begged for a bum lamb for my birthday. Look where that got me.
A llama came next. When his classmates at Mullen High School ogled fancy mics, Flip spent his summer raising money on baby bison and longhorn calves.
In half a century, he added more bison. And reindeer and zebras and zebus, water buffaloes and emus and elk, miniature horses and donkeys and bossy goats, pot-bellied pigs and alpacas and porcupines and peacocks.
And that trio of camels you spot just outside the barn window as Flip unravels his stories, making you think twice: I feel like we’re not in Nebraska anymore…
The camels are in pursuit of a faded green pickup.
Flip is behind the wheel, hurtling down the pasture road as a trio of camels of long-lashed, long-legged cartoon characters approach.
Flip has plenty of pickups, but he fires up the 98 Chevy for ranch tours. Animals know there’s a 5 gallon bucket of cow cake in the bed, ready to be handed out, of course like clown candy in a parade.
It’s what fills Flip’s calendar when he’s not setting up petting zoos in small towns or rounding up reindeer and transporting them so kids can touch Santa’s hooves. during the holidays.
The rest of the year, he hosts Boy Scout troops, wedding receptions and family reunions here. Last year, nearly 2,000 visitors cooled off in the Wolf, cooked burgers on a rusty longhorn-shaped grill, had karaoke in the barn and bumped into Flip to see the sights during a tour of the ranch.
As for Flip, what you see is what you get.
A guy making jokes at his own expense, patting his stomach barely there and saying, “Jenny Craig keeps calling.”
A guy with a soft spot for the old and the weak, but who doesn’t laugh.
“I just don’t like bull ****.
Flip’s world is black or white. No gray.
He hasn’t returned to Lincoln with his reindeer since the city told him he needed a permit, then sent someone to stand guard outside the 70th Street Hospital.
“What a shame,” he said. “It was great to see the kids in the hospital.”
In 2014, when Seneca was in an uproar over a no-incorporation vote, a resident took to Facebook claiming that Flip had never paid for a house he owned in town.
Flip grabbed a piece of chipboard and a can of spray paint and nailed his rebuttal to the front of this house. The sign, still there, calls the resident, in foot-high letters, “a big fat liar.”
For years, Stable Productions was a one-man show.
It’s been 20 years since he started his reindeer tours – his exotic animal business is regulated and inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture – and a decade since he registered as a ‘Non-profit organization.
During the pandemic, he added a primitive riverside cabin with Murphy beds and an outhouse painted Husker red.
He created a tribute wall in the barn, engraved with the names of visitors who made their way into his heart.
The Iowa couple who got married in the zebra pasture. The Eagle Scout who built his website. Sam, the boy with cerebral palsy, who brought his mother to tears when he said his first word on the ranch: Camel! Camel!
And Braedon, the teenager with Duchene muscular dystrophy, who answered Flip’s zebra pop quiz correctly. (They are black with white stripes, not the other way around.)
Flip charges fees for reindeer shows and petting zoos. He raises and sells a few babies every year; zebras bring a pretty penny.
He accepts donations for overnight stays in the barn guest rooms and tours in the green pickup, but he won’t take money from families who have children with special needs.
Flip doesn’t have a fancy answer for why he cares so much about kids who have trouble fighting.
He witnessed how animals and children connect. He saw a donkey circle around a boy in a wheelchair and lay his head on his chest.
“These animals know. They just feel that a child is special.
Flip wasn’t sure what might happen to his oasis after he left.
Then in 2017, a family of Lickings from Red Cloud were vacationing in Halsey. The father had read an article in NebraskaLand magazine about a guy named Licking and his ranch of exotic animals. Matt Licking had a 13-year-old son named Brett, who loved animals.
He picked up the phone. Could they come visit us?
Hours later, the family reunited with Flip at that long barn table and traced their shared lineage.
Every summer since, Brett has returned to the ranch, joined by his cousin Levi.
The couple do chores. They transport reindeer across the state before Christmas. They help with ranch tours and petting zoos. Flip set them up with their own animals to care for. He gave them a pair of dilapidated houses in Seneca, which they are in the process of repairing.
“Flip really took them under his wing,” Brett’s father said. “He always talks about how he wishes someone had done this for him.”
And Flip’s young parents want to stay.
Brett raises African crested porcupines and coatimundi, South American marsupials. Levi is training one of the camels.
“Like you would a horse,” the 22-year-old says.
Brett is 18 now. The cousins plan to put down roots in Thomas County, learning from Flip, their funny and self-deprecating distant cousin, by building their own herds.
It’s hard work, says Brett. He likes that.
“Flip always tells us, ‘When you have an opportunity, take it’.”
Flip is a charmer with animals; Dr. Doolittle with a cap. He jumps out of the green van to give a bottle to a bison. A llama relaxes. Miniature ponies weave their way inside.
He then brings supper to the reindeer – eight in all; everyone except Rodolphe.
He started with a pair of chilly caribou, bought at a reindeer auction in Missouri. Eventually Comet and Cupid arrived, then Donner and Vixen and the others. The reindeer made an appearance in a music video. They were on stage at a reindeer herding symposium.
“They put me on an expert panel and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? “”
Red-headed vultures spin and poplars rustle, seeds drift like snowflakes.
The sun is setting as the van pulls up in front of the red barn. Storm clouds passed north toward Valentine, turning the horizon cotton candy pink.
“God, it’s pretty.”
His life here doesn’t feel like a chore, even though it’s an endless string of them.
He thinks that’s his goal.
“I think that’s why I was put here,” he said. “I did what I wanted with my life.”
As the sun rises, the reindeer herder will be behind the wheel of his red pickup truck, roaming the grazing roads for morning chores on the land he loves.
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