SENECA, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — The Reindeer Rancher sits at the head of the long table in the big barn he built for overnight guests.
Phillip Licking is swatting flies and washing down barbeque potato chips with Dr. Pepper, staples of the slim 60-year-old’s bachelor diet.
You can call him Flip – everyone does – thanks to an older cousin who couldn’t quite spit out Phillip.
Flip loves these hundreds of windswept acres in Thomas County, hemmed in by railroad tracks and grassy hills and cut by the lazy Middle Loup – this spot where he raises animals you’d expect to find roaming the savannas of Africa or the mythical North Pole, not grazing in the middle of nowhere near Highway 2.
It’s a wide-open ranch in cattle country without an Angus or Hereford in sight, where Flip Licking has built this barn and a cozy cabin, turned a corn crib into a bison-viewing perch, hauled in his childhood home, rescued a one-room schoolhouse, built a sand volleyball court and a swinging bridge and put up a porch swing with his mama’s name – Jackie – welded across the top.
Jackie Johnson was a city girl who spent her school bus fare on trips to Chicago zoos, then hitchhiked west and met Paul Licking at the Cowpoke Cafe in Thedford.
Maybe that’s where the Safari in the Sandhills started, deep in her youngest son’s DNA, because as far back as he can remember, Flip’s had a soft spot for animals.
“When I was 5, I begged for a bum lamb for my birthday. Look where it took me.”
A llama came next. When his Mullen High School classmates were eyeing fancy pickups, Flip was spending his summer haying money on bison babies and longhorn calves.
Over a half-century, he added more bison. And reindeer. Zebras and zebus. Water buffalo and emu and elk. Miniature horses and donkeys and bossy goats, potbelly pigs and alpacas and porcupine and peacocks.
And that trio of camels you spot just outside the barn window as Flip unwinds his stories, making you look once and once again, thinking: I have a feeling we’re not in Nebraska anymore…
The camels are in hot pursuit of a faded green pickup.
Flip is behind the wheel of that ’98 Chevy, bumping down the pasture road as a trio of long-lashed and long-legged cartoon character dromedaries close in.
Flip owns plenty of pickups, but the green Chevy is what he fires up for ranch tours. The animals recognize it. They know there’s a 5-gallon bucket of cow cake in the bed, ready to be doled out, sure as penny candy from clowns at a parade.
And they come running.
This is what fills Flip’s calendar when he’s not setting up petting zoos in small towns or corralling reindeer and hauling them to hospitals and shopping malls and fundraisers, from the Panhandle to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, so kids can touch Santa’s hooved helpers during the holidays.
The rest of the year, he’s here hosting Boy Scout troops, wedding receptions and family reunions. Last year alone, nearly 2,000 visitors cooled off in the Loup, cooked burgers on a grill shaped like a rusty longhorn, played ping pong, belted out karaoke in the barn and bumped along with Flip to see the sights on a ranch tour.
Once, a doctor from Omaha came to stay and spent three hours in the pickup bed, marveling over the bison, left behind a $300 tip and drove home happy.
“She didn’t want to see anything else.”
As for Flip, what you see is what you get.
A guy who makes jokes at his own expense, patting his barely-there stomach and saying: “Jenny Craig keeps calling.”
A guy with a soft spot for the old and weak, but who doesn’t take any crap.
“I just don’t like bull****.”
Flip’s world is black or white. No gray.
Telling a man what he can do with his property? Wrong.
Bureaucrats who lord over the little guy? Wrong.
He hasn’t been back to Lincoln with his reindeer since the city told him he needed a permit and then sent someone to stand watch while children snaked through the line in front of the hospital on 70th Street.
“What a shame,” he says. “It was awesome seeing the kids at the hospital.”
He won’t go back.
In 2014, when Seneca was in an uproar over a vote to unincorporate, a resident took to Facebook claiming Flip never paid for a house he owned in town.
He paid, Flip says, and the former homeowner knew he did, but Flip didn’t have Facebook. So he grabbed a piece of particleboard and a can of spray paint and nailed his rebuttal to the front of that house. It calls the resident, in foot-high letters, “a big, fat liar.”
That sign? Still there.
When will it come down? Who knows?
For years, Stable Productions was a one-man show. Flip kept house in a trailer, worked full time maintaining the highway between Thedford and Mullen for the state, and built his herd.
He hauled in the home place after his dad died and his mom moved to Seneca. He trucked in a boarded-up Mullen gas station and that abandoned school, filling it with period desks and dusty, century-old books.
It’s been more than 30 years since he rescued the school, 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 formally registered as a nonprofit.
During the pandemic, he added a primitive cabin on the banks of the river with Murphy beds and an outhouse painted Husker red, nearly ready for its first guests.
He’s created a tribute wall in the barn, engraved with names of visitors who have made their way into his heart.
The couple from Iowa who got married in the zebra pasture. The Eagle Scout who built his website. Sam, the boy with cerebral palsy, who made his mom cry when he uttered his first word at the ranch: Camel! Camel!
And Braedon, the teenager with Duchene’s muscular dystrophy, who shook his hand and called him sir and correctly answered Flip’s zebra pop quiz. (They’re black with white stripes, not the other way round.)
Flip charges a fee for the reindeer shows and the petting zoos. He breeds and sells a few babies every year; zebras bring a pretty penny.
He takes donations for overnight stays in the barn’s guest rooms and tours in the green pickup, but he won’t take money from families who have special needs kids.
Kids with cancer, free.
Make-a-Wish kids, free.
Veterans and their families? Come fish and float and feed Bytha the bison and Reggie the camel; just don’t write a check.
“I think we treat our service people like crap when they get back,” Flip explains. “It’s just a little something I can do.”
Flip doesn’t have a fancy answer for why he cares so much about kids who have a hard row to hoe.
The joy, he guesses. The way the animals and the kids connect. He’s witnessed it. He’s watched a donkey circle a boy in a wheelchair and rest his head on his chest.
“Those animals know. They just have a sense that a kid is special.”
Every year, Flip shows up at the annual fundraiser for the Autism Society of Nebraska with his petting zoo and board member Becky Rossell watches that animal magic.
She see’s Flip’s magic, too, returning every year and refusing to take a dime.
“Flip is one of those truly giving people,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain it.’
Dustin Riggins, a hunting and fishing guide from Arcadia, met Flip this spring. Every year, a family from Ohio travels to Nebraska to turkey hunt with their son – the boy with muscular dystrophy whose name is on Flip’s wall.
This year, they hunted near Flip’s place. Riggins gave him a call.
“He dropped everything he was doing and said come on out. He absolutely would not take anything; it just gave him pleasure to do that.”
Flip’s friends can tell you plenty of stories like that one. So can he.
“We’re not going to take any of this s*** with us, so we might as well share it.”
Flip wasn’t sure what might happen to his oasis and its animals after he was gone.
Then in 2017, a family of Lickings from Red Cloud were vacationing in Halsey. Years earlier, the father had read a NebraskaLand magazine story about a guy named Licking and his exotic animal ranch. Matt Licking had a 13-year-old son named Brett, who loved animals.
He picked up the phone. Could they come for a visit?
A few hours later, the family huddled 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 Licking.
The pair of animal lovers do chores. They haul reindeer across the state in the weeks before Christmas. They help with ranch tours and petting zoos. Flip has set them up with animals of their own to tend. He gave them a pair of dilapidated houses in Seneca — unincorporated, but still standing — down the road, where they spend their extra hours turning them into homes.
“Flip has really taken them under his wing,” Brett’s dad said. “He’s always talking about how he wishes someone would have done that for him.”
And Flip’s young shirttail relations want to stay.
Brett is breeding African-crested porcupines and coatimundi, South American marsupials. Levi is saddle training one of the camels.
“Same way 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, self-deprecating distant cousin, building their own herds.
It’s hard work, Brett says. But he loves it.
“Flip always tells us, ‘When you have an opportunity, take it.”
The green pickup heads for the zebra herd.
The African equines trot toward it, tossing their heads and kicking up dust.
Flip’s a charmer with the animals; Dr. Doolittle in a ball cap. He hops out to bottle feed a bison calf. A llama cozies up, looking for a handout. Miniature ponies nose their way in.
Flip scoops up a baby potbelly pig and stretches out his arms, like a priest offering communion.
“If you touch it,” he teases, “you have to take it home.”
He carries supper to the reindeer next – eight in all; everyone but Rudolph.
He started with a pair of the cold-loving caribou, purchased at an auction in Missouri. They already had names. April and Hot Lips.
“Kids started asking what they were called and it was like, ‘Oh, crap.’”
He changed them. Eventually, Comet and Cupid came along, then Donner and Vixen and the rest.
The reindeer turn heads.
They made an appearance on a music video for a Florida band. They’ve been on stage at a symposium on reindeer ranching.
“They put me on a panel of experts and I thought, ‘What am I doing up here?’”
Once, he hauled them to a mall and local organizers tried to shut the visit down before all the kids made it through.
“A fight broke out.”
Flip turns the baby pig loose and the truck trundles over to a custom, Flip-crafted dog house, where a handful of rescue mutts and a Great Dane share a hand-me-down couch and easy chair.
Then the Chevy chugs up the high road to look for the water buffalo herd. Turkey vultures circle and the cottonwoods rustle, seeds drifting like snowflakes.
The sun is setting when the pickup pulls up to the red barn. Storm clouds have passed north toward Valentine, turning the horizon cotton candy pink.
“God, that’s pretty.”
He heads into the barn for a last swig of Dr. Pepper and to check on his guests. His life here doesn’t feel like a chore, although it’s full of them: feeding, watering, mowing, paying bills, tending to sick animals, scheduling guests.
He figures this is his purpose.
“I think this is what I was put here for,” he says. “I’ve done what I want with my life.”
Come sunrise, the Reindeer Rancher will be behind the wheel of his red pickup, tooling along the pasture roads for morning chores.
Then he’ll return to the barn and get ready for his next set of visitors and a family reunion on the weekend.
A whole herd of Lickings, spilling out on the land Flip loves.
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