Live Nativities are a beautiful way for churches and communities to come together to commemorate the birth of Jesus. As costumed actors bring the biblical story to life, the audience is transported to that holy night. But while these human actors are willing participants, animals used in such performances are not. Donkeys, camels, sheep, and even goats and cows are often tethered for hours and subjected to noisy crowds, honking cars, and freezing temperatures. And when these animals are rented from abusive exhibitors, they’re treated with anything but kindness and goodwill.
Altering the Story of the First Christmas
Many theologians maintain that animals weren’t present at Jesus’ birth, making Nativities that feature them historically inaccurate. Discussing the first nativity in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “In the gospels there is no mention of animals.” His Holiness believes that Christians mistakenly began placing animals at the scene because of references to oxen and donkeys in other parts of the Bible.
Live Nativities, Unholy Abuse
Animals often suffer because of that human error. At a live-animal Nativity in Kentucky, an exhibitor reportedly identified as Joseph P. Price was caught on video punching a camel in the face. Attendee Tiffany Sparks, who uploaded the video and witnessed the alleged cruelty firsthand, said, “Those poor camels have been smacked, kicked, choked by being pulled to the ground everytime they try and stand up. My kids and I are absolutely heart broken seeing them treat the camels this way.”
An audience member at a Christmas pageant in Florida filmed a camel named LulaBell falling into the crowd when her handler attempted to force her to lie down. PETA has documented countless similar instances of exhibitors abusing animals.
The Scene Is Staged, but the Suffering Is Real
Even when animals used in manger scenes aren’t sourced from exhibitors, they’re still made to stand or sit still for long periods, often without food or water. Many animals have fled or have tried to flee after becoming frightened by traffic and crowds, including a camel who escaped a live nativity in Kansas and spent a day darting through neighborhoods and down a busy highway before she was recaptured. A camel named Ernie escaped from a Nativity display in Maryland and was struck by a car and killed. Other animals have been viciously attacked, including a sheep being used in a manger scene in West Virginia who was sexually assaulted by a man who broke into the animals’ pen after hours. In Virginia, three animals died after they were attacked by dogs while being used in a church display.
Peace and Goodwill to All Creation
No animal deserves to be treated this way. Camels aren’t even fully mature until 7 years of age, but many are forced into performances long before that. In nature, these gentle, social animals, who softly blow in one another’s faces to say hello, would be traveling with their family herds. Donkeys are highly intelligent and curious, with a strong sense of self-preservation and a reluctance to do anything that may harm them. Unfortunately, this often leads humans to view them as “stubborn” and to treat them harshly. Sheep are sensitive animals who experience complex emotions not unlike those of humans. They can read emotional changes in one another as well as in human faces. And when stressed, they exhibit signs of depression.
No Bible verse says that humans can force animals to perform for our entertainment. If your church is planning to put on a live Nativity including animals, talk to the organizers about using fake ones alongside the human participants. Doing so will protect the performers from contracting rabies, salmonellosis, sarcoptic mange, ringworm, or other infections or diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans, and the funds used to rent animals could instead go toward helping those less fortunate.
Especially during the holiest of seasons, let’s show goodwill to all creation and leave animals in peace.