No Room for Naivety at This Nativity

By   •   November 29, 2012

Some people wait in line for hours to shop the day after Thanksgiving. Others decorate the Christmas tree or relax after a big meal. But Jodi Gray and her husband, Jeff, have a different Thanksgiving tradition; they examine all 10 camels in their backyard to determine which will work best in a live nativity scene at the Billy Graham Library.

Jodi and Jeff run Sam’s Path Petting Zoo in Georgia. They have supplied the Library’s nativity animals since Christmas at the Library started five years ago.

“The camel is always a hit,” she said. “This year, I’m thinking the nilgai antelope will steal the show. … No one actually realizes how cute he is until you see him.”

Choosing which animals will accompany Mary, Joseph and the shepherds to see baby Jesus is no small task. Jodi has to determine which ones are well-suited to being on duty for hours at a time and which ones have agreeable personalities. The “teenagers” might have an attitude, she said, and older animals can be moody.

“You want more of a mellow camel,” she said.

The first year, Humphrey the camel didn’t want to leave the nativity scene. “It’s 9 or 10 (o’clock) at night and I’m trying to pull this camel to the trailer,” Jodi said. Humphrey bellowed as a couple of security guards pitched in to help.

Now Jodi trains the animals throughout the year specifically for Christmas at the Library. She stakes down the camels in her front yard to have them practice staying put and walks them along dark paths on her property so they won’t have problems along the dim path from the back of the Library to the front. She takes the animals for walks to the corner deli at home to get them used to different terrain and loud noises. And with a few hundred petting zoo events each year, the animals are familiar with people.

This year’s fleet will feature sheep, Lexi the donkey, Zac the Yak and Red the Scottish Highlander cow. Twin goats Double Trouble will also make an appearance. Jodi wants well-behaved animals that will also interact with visitors.

Sam’s Path Petting Zoo averages 60 to 70 nativity scenes each year. But at the Library, the sheep always pull tricks.

“Every year, the sheep find a way to walk around the Library,” Jodi said. “They’ll get loose from the nativity and walk around.” Jodi or one of her handlers quickly rounds them up and puts them back in the wood pen.”

The sheep aren’t the only ones with minds of their own. Sometimes the donkey decides to lie down in the middle of the scene and wiggle out of the blanket on its back. Or the goat will take Mary’s spot on the hay bale when she gets up. Sometimes the animals lie down when it gets dark and the music is playing.

“It puts the animals in a hypnotic trance,” Jodi said.

To feed the four-legged cast members, Jodi uses 20 bags of feed – 50 pounds each — along with 15 bales of hay and about 30 gallons of water per animal, per day.

As a young girl watching Billy Graham on TV with her grandparents, Jodi never thought she would one day supply the Billy Graham Library with yaks, camels and twin goats. Her grandmother, now in her 90s, thinks working with the Library is “super cool,” Jodi said.

Christmas at the Library visitors can come early to pet the animals from noon to 2 p.m. through Dec. 22 (except Sundays). Click here for more information about Christmas at The Library.

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