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Last updated: Sat. Dec. 21, 2013 - 06:21 am EDT

Camel, owner enjoy spreading Christmas spirit

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•Video of The Chapel's Christmas productions will be posted in the near future on the church website,

•For more about the Whispering Pines Mobile Zoo, go to


Gunther may not realize it, but Kirk Elya believes he has helped change people's lives.

A 1,600-pound camel who stands hump and shoulders above many people, Gunther has been a regular for several years in The Chapel's Christmas productions in Fort Wayne. He also makes a lot of guest appearances in Living Nativity scenes throughout Michigan, helping to bring the story of Jesus Christ's birth to life.

“The response from the people is just overwhelming,” said Elya, owner of Gunther and the more than 200 other animals at his Whispering Pines Mobile Zoo in Reed City, Mich., about 60 miles north of Grand Rapids.

Gunther, who is age 28, has been around people all his life, Elya said.

Born in New York, Gunther was among the animals his first owner used while providing camel rides on a contract basis at the zoo in Knoxville, Tenn., Elya said. Elya acquired Gunther 15 years ago.

Though normally seen as a desert dweller, camels do well in colder weather, too.

“They acclimate to the weather the way a horse or cow would — they grow a thicker fur,” Elya said.

During warmer seasons of the year, Gunther sometimes is part of a petting zoo Elya can provide for various events.

“He's very gentle, very calm,” Elya said.

This year, for example, The Chapel put down a tarp and wood chips in a portion of its lobby, and asked Elya to have Gunther stand there after his part in the production so people could see him up close, pet him and possibly feed him.

A few people went so far as to let Gunther pluck apple slices from their own lips, Elya said.

Gunther has been great to work with during the Christmas productions, said Cathy Hawks, who leads The Chapel's music ministries.

“He's an actor. He actually loves the stage,” Hawks said.

The Chapel's Christmas productions usually span two weekends, with presentations on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. The events, which took place Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 14-15 this year, attract a combined total of 7,000 to 8,000 people, Hawks said.

They use Gunther the second weekend in the procession of people toward the manger to see the newborn Jesus Christ, she said.

Elya usually brings Gunther down the Saturday morning of the weekend he performs at The Chapel.

They do a walk-through of the production so Gunther and other animals — this year, the procession included a horse for the first time — can hear the music. After that, Gunther is ready.

He seems to recall his role from past years, Hawks said.

While Gunther has completed his Fort Wayne appearances for the year, he still has a busy few days ahead of him.

He'll be working Christmas Eve at another one of his regular stops — a church in Novi, Mich., northwest of Detroit.

He and Elya will be among those in a Nativity scene greeting people as they arrive for worship services.

Living Nativities and similar events seem to inspire joy and happiness, Elya said.

“I feel grateful I can bring that to people,” he added.

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