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Live animals lend authenticity to church’s Nativity production

They don’t have lines of dialogue, but they are a vital part of the show.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on a live Nativity each year, and sheep, burros, horses and goats are part of the cast.

Securing the animals is Mark Milford’s job. When not tending his automotive shop, he is a professional rodeo competitor with a history of ranching. Two of his horses, Bomber and Ed, have been part of the live Nativity production since the Las Vegas Redrock Stake took over the show about five years ago.

He secured a third gelding —- referred to by some as Big White but whose real name is Wallace —- from a buddy. Wallace is boarded with the other horses in the northwest part of the valley. The horses have been used in the production the last three years, so they know the routine. The three wise men ride them.

"The stage is only 12 feet wide, and where the actors are on stage, when the horses come through, you’ve got 2,000 people there taking pictures, and you’ve got noises and stuff, so I use horses that aren’t bothered by that at all," Milford said. "I picked horses that were old rodeo horses."

The other animals in the production —- six sheep, six goats and two burros —- come from the LDS ranch about 100 miles away, near Alamo. As the opening show gets closer, Milford hooks up a livestock trailer to his big diesel pickup truck and heads north to pick them up.

The burros are old hats at the production, and the same two have been featured for nearly 25 years. Burros often live to be about 40, and the two from the Alamo farm are in their 30s, so two new burros will be added to this year’s show.

They will not be an integral part but will be penned to the side to help them acclimate to the atmosphere. When the time comes, they will take over the parts played by the older burros.

"They’re both males, but we call them Mary and Joseph," Milford said. "They’re the hit of the show, the main attraction."

The actress playing Mary rides one onstage. The other is mostly stage dressing and stays to one side and seems to know when the performance is set to begin.

"When the music starts, it’s like a perfect queue; he brays every time," Milford said. "Every time, it never fails. And when Mary rides in on the burro, he’ll bray again. The crowd loves it."

There is little chance of the animals bolting into the crowd, Milford said. They all have ropes around their necks tethered to a guy-wire that runs across the stage. An additional level of protection: The shepherds are there to help keep them in line.

Milford’s wife, Lori, said she has no concerns about children interacting with the animals.

"(I tell them) never walk behind the horses," she said. "That’s the very first rule. Never walk behind any of the animals."

Milford feeds the animals alfalfa before the first performance to help keep them content. That doesn’t mean they are always cooperative.

"Sheep can sulk, big time," Milford said. "I’ve had a couple sheep that didn’t want to walk from the trailer to where we needed to put them. I’ve actually had them sit down, flop over on their side and just sulk. They’ll lay out and play dead, and you just kind of have to drag them."

He said sheep in a group are more manageable than trying to get a single one to move.

The church tried securing camels one year. A place in Arizona said it could supply them for $10,000 for three camels for a week. However, the production has a budget of zero, and everyone is a volunteer. So they nixed the idea.

Originally, the doves, actually pigeons, and chickens were live and kept in cages. These days the chickens are fake.

"Way easier to work with," Milford said.

He said from the first time he secured animals for the show, he realized they were the real stars, especially for the children in the audience. After each performance, audience members can pet the animals. The handlers include young men from 4-H who are 16 to 17 years old. Their task includes ensuring that little children don’t try to put their faces up against the animal’s face, which is a good way to get butted, no matter how gentle the animal is.

He said it was amazing how the animals adapted, especially having the audience rush at them.

"At the dress rehearsal, they’re a little bit antsy, but after that, nah," he said.

Petting the animals after each production is so popular that the crowd often lingers. There is often only 20 minutes before the next performance.

"They have to push them out between shows sometimes," Lori Milford said.

Outdoor performances of "The Nativity" are scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Dec. 6, and 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Dec. 7 and 8 at Opportunity Village’s Ralph & Betty Engelstad Campus, 6050 S. Buffalo Drive. The show is set to be performed in Spanish at 7 p.m. Dec. 5.

Parking and admission are free. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information, visit thenativitylv.com.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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