SENECA, Nebraska – 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 a cousin who couldn’t quite spit out Phillip.
Flip loves these hundreds of acres in Thomas County, this spot where he raises animals you’d expect to find roaming the savannas of Africa or the mythical North Pole, not grazing near Nebraska Highway 2.
Safari in the Sandhills is a wide-open ranch in cattle country without a cow 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.
“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 double-take and think: 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, bumping down the pasture road as a trio of long-lashed and long-legged cartoon character dromedaries close in.
Flip owns many pickups, but he fires up the ’98 Chevy for ranch tours. The animals 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.
So 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 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, nearly 2,000 visitors cooled off in the Middle Loup River, cooked burgers on a grill shaped like a rusty longhorn, belted out karaoke in the barn and bumped along with Flip to see the sights on a ranch tour.
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 guff.
“I just don’t like bull****.
Flip’s world is black or white. No gray.
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 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.
Flip grabbed a piece of particleboard and can of spray paint and nailed his rebuttal to the front of that 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 nonprofit.
During the pandemic, he added a primitive cabin on the banks of the river with Murphy beds and an outhouse painted Husker red.
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 correctly answered Flip’s zebra pop quiz. (They’re black with white stripes, not the other way round.)
Flip charges a fee for reindeer shows and 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.
Flip doesn’t have a fancy answer for why he cares so much about kids who have a hard row to hoe.
He’s witnessed the way the animals and kids connect. 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.”
Flip wasn’t sure what might happen to his oasis after he was gone.
Then in 2017, a family of Lickings from Red Cloud were vacationing in Halsey. 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.
The pair do chores. They haul reindeer across the state 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, which they’re fixing up.
“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. He loves it.
“Flip always tells us, ‘When you have an opportunity, take it.”
Flip’s a charmer with the animals; Dr. Doolittle in a ball cap. He hops out of the green pickup to bottle feed a bison calf. A llama cozies up. Miniature ponies nose their way in.
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 a reindeer auction in Missouri. Eventually, Comet and Cupid came along, then Donner and Vixen and the rest. The reindeer made an appearance in a music video. They’ve been on stage at a reindeer ranching symposium.
“They put me on a panel of experts and I thought, ‘What am I doing up here?’”
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.”
His life here doesn’t feel like a chore, although it’s an endless series of them.
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 on the land he loves.
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