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Nativity showstoppers

Joseph and Thomas were not pleased to be subjected to such biting Duluth weather Saturday night, and grunted in protest as they were led out of their trailer. The dromedary camels were preparing for the procession to the live nativity held at Bet...

Joseph and Thomas were not pleased to be subjected to such biting Duluth weather Saturday night, and grunted in protest as they were led out of their trailer. The dromedary camels were preparing for the procession to the live nativity held at Bethany Baptist Church.

Because they're used to a heated barn in the winter, they were kept in an insulated trailer until they were ready to be draped in their regal costumes.

"We have to watch their feet and knees when they lay down," said Kathy Zerebko, who owns Zerebko Zoo-Tran with her husband, Wally. "It's tough, tough material, but it's still prone to frostbite."

Wise men and lantern-holders gathered around the camels as Wally and Kathy commanded the camels to "cush," or lie down.

The camels, which spend time outside on the Zerebko's 640-acre ranch in Bovey, Minn., were nervous about the new surroundings.

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The couple said they don't bite unless they are "offended," and soothed the shivering beasts with calming words.

"It gets to be below freezing in the desert," Kathy said, "so they can withstand a lot."

While no one rode Thomas or Joseph Saturday night, Kathy said riding a camel is unbelievable because the saddle is fitted so the rider is situated above the hump in a sort of hammock.

"It's like driving a semi-truck," she said.

The Zerebko's camels are 8 years old, 8 feet tall and weigh more than 2,000 pounds each. The family raises Shetland ponies and keeps sheep, alpacas, zebras, llamas, donkeys and goats, most of which were present in the manger scene, minus the zebras.

Many of the animals travel the fair circuit for pony rides and petting zoos, but the camels work just four weekends out of the year, doing live nativities. They don't mind being dressed up and led through the paces, Wally Zerebko said.

"They do what we ask them because there is no whooping to get it done, no mistreatment," he said. "They get their treats. They know it's short-lived, and they just go along."

Besides, the camels enjoy visiting people and don't mind being petted.

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"They love the public," Wally Zerebko said.

The camels, half-brothers, were purchased at a camel auction in Missouri. Wally Zerebko said many camels are raised in captivity across the country.

His camels drink about five gallons of water a day and eat the same food as horses, including grass and a bit of alfalfa.

"Sometimes they won't drink in the morning but, come evening, will drink a whole pail," Wally Zerebko said.

Lakeside Baptist Church and Bethany Baptist Church paid $1,500 for the use of the animals this year, the first year the two churches have collaborated. Lakeside has been hiring the camels for three years, but has done live nativities for 17 years, said Sally Bergstedt, director of programming.

"We've always said that it's our Christmas gift to Duluth," she said. "Remembering that it's Jesus' birth, we want to remind people that it's the reason Christmas ever was."

Some live nativities are set inside churches. Wally Zerebko loves it when the audience gasps as the camels are led inside.

"People say it is pretty neat to be right up front and close to what happened centuries ago," Zerebko said.

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JANA HOLLINGSWORTH is a general assignment reporter. She can be reached Tuesdays through Saturdays at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com .

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