Peering over her pen in the parking lot of Grace Christian Fellowship Church in Shawnee, Cinnamon the baby camel is ready for her close-up.
Well, sort of. As people pet her soft, nubby fur on a mild Friday evening, the 9-month-old nuzzles necks and noses and gently tries to nibble on cellphones, scarves and anything else she can get her leathery lips on.
“I think she’s looking for her bottle,” says her 14-year-old caretaker, Zach Aswegan.
It’s OK with her newest fans. Cinnamon is one of the stars of the church’s second annual “Walk Through Bethlehem” Christmas pageant, which, along with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men and shepherds, features 10 real animals.
“Can we take her home with us?” pleads 6-year-old Maddie Mayhew, who came with her cousins. “Or else I want to stay here forever!”
Sorry, Maddie. Cinnamon belongs to A-Z Exotic Animal Adventures in Peculiar. This time of year such traveling petting zoos are busy providing animals to churches looking to add an air of authenticity to living Nativity scenes. Cinnamon, Mabel the donkey and Daisy the miniature cow arrived in a large trailer and stay in portable pens in the side parking lot near the event’s entrance. Goats and sheep go in a second pen near the front door, next to volunteers dressed as shepherds.
After greeting the animals, groups are led inside the church for the tour — a pretend walk to Bethlehem to be counted for the Roman census. Along the way they stop at various scenes, where volunteers in costume enlighten them on the Christmas story.
The church plans to bring in another assortment of animals for more performances this weekend. While the goats and sheep have their admirers, Cinnamon draws the biggest crowds. Patti McGlynn of Shawnee leans in and gives her a hug.
“She is so sweet,” the 56-year-old nurse says. “She cuddled up right into my face and nibbled on my ear. It makes you warm in your heart. And you can always use a little cuddle.”
“Here sheepy sheepy,” a child calls into the other pen. “Hey, I called him and he came to me!”
OK, so it’s a goat. The point is both kids are happy.
While the market for live animals this time of year is thriving in cities such as St. Louis and Atlanta, it has cooled a bit in Kansas City, says Zach’s dad, Jerry Aswegan, a farmer who has owned A-Z with his wife, Janet, for 22 years. Still, there’s enough business to keep them hopping with multiple bookings at churches across the city during their busiest time of the year.
Grace Christian paid $1,800 to rent the animals for four nights. Ruth Larkin, one of the church’s worship pastors, says they make the Christmas story come alive.
“It makes it so much more (powerful) because our whole goal is … to make a setting where you see the sights, smell the smells and experience what it felt like (that first Christmas),” she said. “And animals, obviously, bring so much to that. It has been a blessing these last two years to have live animals. And it helps attract people because we can say hey, there’s animals here!”
Camels are the most popular rentals now because of their famous riders in the Christmas story.
“So what people in the Bible rode camels?” Larkin asks her four children.
“Wise men!” comes the answer.
A-Z has three camels, including a white one and another one that you can ride.
“We took our adult camel, Gabrielle, to Nebraska,” Jerry says. “She was in a small, independent movie. They are (shooting) the Book of Job in sign language. And she’s been in a couple of commercials, too.”
One year, for a particularly lucrative job, he took a camel to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and stayed for a month. He dressed as a shepherd and walked the camel on stage.
“They were doing a show, and at the end they had a live Nativity scene,” he says. “They had three shows a day in December.”
A-Z is a fully licensed exotic traveling petting zoo. Its barns and pastures hold a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals, including kangaroos, monkeys, antelope, buffalo, zebras, lemurs, macaws, cockatoos, African Spur tortoises and even a Patagonian cavy — a large rodent — if you need one of those.
The Aswegans, including five children and three grandchildren, raise the animals as members of their family. It has been fun.
“One event we did in a church, we brought a donkey,” Zach says. “We walked it down the aisle, and they had a funny Shrek ‘Donkey’ voice telling how he was important and how he traveled with Jesus.”
“That was a funny little thing,” says his mother, Janet. “The kids really enjoyed that.”
Jerry wishes he could work only with his petting zoo. To make ends meet he also has a job installing flooring.
“You don’t get rich, but it’s satisfying because (my kids and I) love animals,” he says. “And we do things that help other people love animals, too.”
Patti Tilman, owner of Stable T Farms in Kansas City, Kan., has supplied animals for living Nativity scenes for decades.
“Sometimes they want everything,” she says. “They want chickens, they want ducks, they want Noah’s Ark is what they want. And we produce it. You can do a Nativity scene without live animals, but I’ve heard year after year that it makes a world of difference. Kids just go crazy. Their eyes light up like diamonds.”
The cost of renting animals varies, she said, depending on species and services.
Beverly Johnson, owner of Bud Johnson’s Petting Zoo in Raymore, has provided animals for churches and other venues for 35 years. Now in her 70s, she is retiring next year.
“It has been a wonderful business,” she says. “My husband started it and loved it. He was the shepherd of the flock.”
Back at Grace Christian, it’s dinnertime for Cinnamon. Janet Aswegan walks quietly past people waiting to walk through the Christmas event. In a kitchen she uses a whisk to mix powdered lamb’s milk formula with water, and then pours it into an oversized baby bottle. Outside, her camel greedily slurps up every drop.
Content, Cinnamon kneels in a bed of hay as people of all ages continue to take snapshots and selfies.
Janet just smiles and brushes her windswept blond hair from her face.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 or 92,” she says. “Everybody loves animals.”