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Away in the mangers, the business is booming

Nativities' rising realism is keeping animals busier.
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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.

'Hectic' holiday schedules
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.

The chosen were led to a massive green trailer attached to a truck. Chewey, unfazed, stepped off the slushy gravel drive and took a couple of long strides to the front of the rig. A gate closed behind him, and his cast mates hopped into the back half. A baby pygmy goat rode in the cab with Bob Johnson. "He's been the biggest hit," Shirley Johnson said.

Stars of the show
But nativity organizers say that although the manger standards -- sheep, donkeys, goats and calves -- are the crucial supporting actors to the holy family, it's the camels, with their desert mystique, who are the stars.

Naturally, the more exotic animals demand stiffer fees. A typical nativity crew goes for $450 an hour at Leesburg Animal Park, though pricing is done case by case. Chewey costs about $500 an hour.

At Centreville Baptist, Chewey gets VIP treatment. One year, the camel turned up his snout at the church's water. Now Chewey is offered a cup of iced hot chocolate, which he slurped the other night out of a pan, brown liquid dripping from his downy chin.

Like a celebrity on the red carpet, Chewey stood behind a rail, and fans -- most of them hoisted by their parents -- reached tiny hands over to touch his toffee-colored curls, little ears and fuzzy lips. Minivans passed. Camera bulbs flashed.

Bob Johnson, wearing an embroidered robe provided by the church, fielded questions about Chewey's spitting and kicking habits (rare, he says). Exclamations sailed through the night air.

"That camel is so soft!" said April Fultz, 43, who came with her husband and children.

"Big!" pronounced Laurie Fultz, 9.

After the first few cars, Bob Johnson, apparently deciding Chewey's cloak did not quite do him justice, plucked a long string of silver beads from among the velvety fabrics and shiny jewels in the Magi tent. He laced it through the camel's red harness, leaving long loops to hang below and sparkle in the light of a nearby tiki torch.

Chewey, in his satin and jewels, dazzled. A moment later, the star folded his legs beneath himself, sat and chewed some hay.