NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two days after the news broke of six-month-old calves escaping from a church’s local Nativity scene, a national animal organization is taking umbrage with their use.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Christian outreach division, PETA LAMBS, sent a letter to Seaside Chapel Pastor Jerry Vess on Dec. 8, asking: “Please, to prevent future tragedies, will you stop using live animals in your events? Your sets and church members provide a perfectly lovely attraction on their own.”
The organization was referring to the cows that escaped from their pens after participating in an interactive Nativity program Saturday evening. The animals journeyed about Carolina Beach for 16 hours before being herded into the Cape Fear River, lassoed and returned to their home farm in Maco.
Dana Vess, whose husband is the pastor of Seaside Chapel, said local farmers donate the animals — two calves, donkeys and sheep — to the church for its annual presentation of “Journey to Bethlehem.”
“Christian teachings are all about kindness — yet animals used in live Nativity scenes aren’t treated with compassion,” PETA LAMBS wrote to the Seaside Chapel pastor. “They’re often stressed from transport and from being in a strange environment, and they’re typically denied everything that’s natural and important to them … they may be chained or confined to small holding pens.”
Vess confirmed the calves arrived on the church’s campus at 3 p.m. on Saturday and were housed in a 16-foot-by-16-foot area, not tethered nor chained. They were only slated to stay overnight before going back to their farmland; then they’d return the following weekend for the second “Journey to Bethlehem” exhibit.
“The farmers deliver them and pick them up, check the pens and make sure they’re secure — it’s their animals, so they want to ensure everything’s good,” she said.
The production started at 5 p.m. and lasted until 9 p.m. Shortly after 10 p.m., Vess confirmed they fed the animals — the same hay and feed they’re given as part of the livestock’s normal diet, as directed by the farmers.
By 11 p.m., a policeman was knocking on the Vess’ door to inform them the cows had been spotted near Mike Chappell Park on Dow Road. It was a half-day’s search before the calves were returned safely.
“I’m not sure exactly how they got out of their pen,” Vess said. “I don’t know if someone messed with it.”
She said there was no obvious damage to the latch or holes to escape.
More than a stationary live Nativity scene, “Journey to Bethlehem” is an interactive vendor marketplace, with guided tours presented to 15 people at a time. It’s a reimagining of what the village may have looked like at the time of Jesus’ birth. There are costumed Roman soldiers and vendors of the era, peddling oils, fabrics and books, as well as a blacksmith, carpet maker, tax collector, and basket weaver.
The attraction brought in 1,600 people during its two-weekend run last year. Last weekend, Vess said 570 people toured through.
The animals haven’t gotten loose during the scenes beforehand; in fact, last weekend’s great bovine escape was a first for Carolina Beach law enforcement, according to spokesperson Sgt. Colby Eden. He said he hasn’t encountered an incident like this in his almost decade with the department.
A search party of church volunteers, police, park rangers and others attempted to surround the animals, but the young cows were skittish compared to older bovines who are more accustomed to human interaction, Police Chief Vic Ward told Port City Daily on Tuesday. The cows would bolt before wranglers were close enough to lasso them.
Ward said, eventually, they used the tactic to surround the cows to force them to wade into the Cape Fear River, as to not run away. With the help of Ward’s Dutch shepherd Zoe herding the cattle, CBPD Cpl. Ashley Brandner and park ranger Jesse Anderson were able to lasso the calves back to dry land.
“The cows won’t be back this weekend, but the donkeys and sheep will,” Vess confirmed.
The donkeys are kept in a 16-foot-by-16-foot pen, and the sheep are near the manger scene in a 12-foot-by-24-foot or 8-by-foot-12-foot area.
“Using animals this way is also a threat to public health: For example, people can be infected by E. coli, salmonella, or ringworm,” PETA LAMBS stated in the letter addressed to the pastor. “They’re also at risk of being grabbed or worse by crowds of strangers.”
The animals are only visual attractions for the most part, Vess said. A shepherd stands by to ensure all animals, other than the donkey, are not touched.
“The owner treats them like they’re dogs,” she said, “so the donkeys are used to being petted.”
Other complaints have risen from the inclusion of the calves, some pointing out they weren’t present at the Nativity 2,000 years ago.
“We call them ‘cow-mels,’” Vess quipped. “Camels are $1,500 a day to rent from Florida. And, you know, we put this on for free for the community.”
If PETA LAMBS had its way, there would only be faux representations or animatronics used in Nativity scenes. Its letter references Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who maintained “there is no mention of animals in the gospels,” which he wrote in 2012’s “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” Yet, he also stated the ox and donkey would remain a part of the Vatican’s diorama Nativity scenes.
“According to the Bible, not a single animal was at the first Nativity, so preventing animals from appearing in these events would also be more historically accurate,” PETA LAMBS wrote to Seaside. “We hope you’ll set a meaningful example by never using live animals in your events again. Thank you for your consideration.”
“Journey to Bethlehem” will take place Saturday and Sunday at 105 Dow Road S. and is open to the public.
Seaside Chapel did not have an official response to PETA LAMBS’ letter by press.
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