Away in the Mangers, The Business Is Booming

Bob Johnson, co-owner of Leesburg Animal Park, feeds Chewey and other animals at his home in Great Falls.
Bob Johnson, co-owner of Leesburg Animal Park, feeds Chewey and other animals at his home in Great Falls. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

The actor's mission was the same as at last week's gig: Strike a pose, be friendly and stay in character, which is not too hard for a camel playing the part of a camel.

The next night might be a different story. That nativity scene in South Riding would involve a procession. But on this chilly December eve, Chewey the dromedary needed only to hang out next to the three kings at Centreville Baptist Church's outdoor, drive-through nativity, where he and his sidekicks from Leesburg Animal Park -- donkeys, sheep, goats and a calf -- are such a staple that they are booked several months in advance.

"The camel, he is like our pride and joy," said Grace Hatcher, whose husband, Bill, is the church's outreach pastor. A few minutes later, she emerged from inside the church with Chewey's custom-made costume: A red-and-black satin, red-fringed blanket. It was almost showtime for the camel -- one of many this month.

Some churches with living nativities recruit members' farm animals. But as nativities and other Christmas shows become ever more creative -- Centreville Baptist's is one of many multi-scene, drive-through productions in the region -- professional zoo and ranch animals, whose owners charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, grow ever busier.

For most of the year, expert animals get occasional gigs at petting zoos, birthday parties and schools. Come December, they can boast holiday schedules worthy of socialites and requiring BlackBerries. Some traverse the region and beyond to star in creches and holiday displays each weekend of the month and some weekdays.

Animals from Natural Bridge Zoo, about three hours southwest of the District, will be carted to about 20 churches in Virginia and neighboring states this season. Dave Hale, whose Missouri ranch supplies animals for the Broadway-style Christmas show at Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, said his animals are performing in so many nativities that he has lost count. On a recent night, his staff was escorting flocks to Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri and Upper Marlboro.

At Leesburg Animal Park, central casting for about 40 nativities in the Washington region, a spreadsheet maps the creatures' deployment. On Christmas Eve, when the park's animals are to staff eight nativities, loading will begin at 2 p.m. and involve a dozen employees, three rigs and several trips on routes chosen for optimum efficiency.

"I think the word 'hectic' would be applicable," said Karl Mogensen, owner of Natural Bridge Zoo, whose snow-white camel, Jezebel, is often requested for nativities.

At Applewood Farm in Whiteford, Md., it's also crunchtime for Brian Adelhardt's four reindeer. On weekends, they model for four lessons a day on reindeers' adaptations to cold and heat, then pose for photos with admiring visitors.

"The demand for reindeer is really hot in December, but the rest of the year, you can't find work for them," Adelhardt said.

On a recent afternoon, Bob and Shirley Johnson, owners of Leesburg Animal Park, picked the players for that evening's three gigs. The Centreville Baptist show would consist of seven biblical scenes staged along the perimeter of the church parking lot. There was no dialogue; drivers would be given a cassette or CD narrating the story.

The lack of action meant the Johnsons would not have to cast the most experienced animals, such as Cheech, a donkey with laudable processional skills and a veteran of the Kennedy Center's production of "Don Quixote," or Wendy and Hickory, two sheep the Johnsons call "bomb-proof" for their unflappability.


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