It’s just after 5 p.m. and the sun is setting over Mirror Lake at the University of Saint Francis. A stiff, biting wind sends the tiniest of falling snowflakes scampering in sheets across the parking lot.
Around the nearly frozen lake, luminaries are being lit, and Jurgin Cripe, 18, and his sister Jirni, 13, are trying to coax a recalcitrant llama named Rally out of a white van.
While Jurgin gets the big-lashed llama and a miniature donkey named Cupcake moving down a nearby embankment, Jirni corrals two sheep and a goat and gets them going in the same direction.
For the teenagers, it’s just another day on the job – a 24/7/365 job, according to their mother, Joni Cripe, that annually brings area residents Christmastime delight.
Before Christmas, the Cripes get run a little ragged as they supply live animals – from barnyard types to reindeer – to religious pageants and family-friendly festivals throughout northeast Indiana.
They raise the animals, plus a lot more, on their North Manchester farm.
Animal-Grams, the family business, has supplied live turkeys for the annual Galloping Gobbler running events on Thanksgiving, ponies for rides at fairs and lambs and bunnies at Easter. There’s even a new race course for pot-bellied pigs at the farm for summertime use.
Ask Cripe, 55, for her animal inventory and the list grows longer the longer she thinks.
Fifteen sheep, she says. Two horses. Six ponies. About a dozen pygmy and fainting goats – yes, they fall right over if under stress, she says. Five miniature horses, four miniature donkeys and a miniature cow. A llama and an alpaca – stand-ins for camels in live Nativity programs. There are 30 rabbits, four guinea pigs, a bunch of chickens, 20 pot-bellied pigs, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, turkeys, two peacocks and a dozen fancy guinea hens.
And that doesn’t count the 20 barn cats, five Great Pyrenees dogs, and the 50 head of Hereford cattle her husband Phil raises while also growing corn and soybeans.
I think we have 20 species of animals, says Cripe, who has been federally licensed as an animal exhibitor for more than 20 years.
Cripe, who grew up in Fort Wayne and has a degree in psychology from IPFW, says she got bit by the critter bug early.
When she was a kid, she trained a cat to jump through hoops – and, yes, you did read that right. When she needed a science project, she compared the intelligence of her various pets. When her family went on vacation to South Dakota, where they visited Reptile Gardens and saw an animal show, her life course was set.
I was 12, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, Cripe says. By 1981, she had started taking animals to schools for free. She graduated to being paid to bring animals to kids’ birthday parties, training horses and giving riding lessons.
In the mid-1980s, she’d added a miniature donkey to her growing herd and realized she had enough animals for a Nativity program. She recalls one of her first gigs was at Simpson United Methodist Church just south of downtown Fort Wayne, where city kids were enthralled.
This was a way to bring out the reality of the (Christmas) story. It just adds the relationship (people had with animals) then – the smell, and the sense of animals being there, she says. I grew up around animals, but a lot of people have never seen some of these animals.
The reindeer came in 2004. She got her first ones from a family in North Judson, later learning some were descendants of reindeer that had been raised by the late Earl Wells of Fort Wayne. The long-time director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo was known for providing reindeer for public programs at Christmastime.
I had worked at the zoo in the 1970s, so I knew him, so that made it special, says Cripe, who since 2011 has shepherded the reindeer at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory’s Christmas events, which were formerly staffed by Wells and his family.
They’re really kind of hard to raise. They’re really odd, she says of reindeer. They’re kind of like livestock, but they aren’t – they can’t handle corn. They eat dead bark, lichen, moss and grass, so we give them hay and a special reindeer chow. It has pulp from sugar beets in it. It’s rough, like fiber, and they love it.
She loves to watch reindeer drink. They paw the water first, because it’s always ice where they come from, she says.
Reindeer, Cripe adds, have gotten expensive. About 10 years ago, you could buy one for about $1,000. Now they cost $6,000 to $10,000 for a female and $4,000 to $6,000 for a male, she says.
But they’ve proved one of the most popular aspects of her business. Two favorites – Candy Cane and Jingle Belle – typically get decked out in a special blanket costume and wear Christmas balls on their antler tips, so little kids can pet them without being scared, Cripe says.
Still the menagerie is a lot of work – she devotes at least 5 to 6 hours each day to the animals. Every day, you have to get them out of their pens, feed and water them, get the pens cleaned up. If there’s an event, sometimes we have to wash them, brush them, so they look groomed and nice.
Cripe says the couple’s other live-at-home children – Josi, 23; Jentri, 21 and Janzin, 16 – also help out; the Cripes also have a 30-year-old daughter Melissa Cripe, who lives in Fort Wayne.
But days still are filled with vet appointments to meet, horses to be shod and errands to run to buy hay, food and supplies, Joni Cripe says. During appearances, the animals and their supplies have to be repeatedly loaded and unloaded.
Every single day, no matter what the weather, I have to take care of them. I never go out of town. We never just about go on vacation, Cripe says. And we work every holiday. Holidays are our busiest times.
She also must travel to appearances with her animals during some of the worst weather of the year. On Dec. 13, when many area residents were cocooned during the season’s first big snowstorm, Cripe was on the road to about a half-dozen stops, missing only one, in Fremont, because the roads were too treacherous.
When other people are thinking about Christmas shopping, I have 22 places we have to be that weekend, Cripe says.
On Dec. 7, she set a new single-day record of nine reindeer appearances while her kids handled the nativity animals at four other places, including the annual University of Saint Francis Christmas celebration. Cripe has supplied animals for the live nativity for about 20 years.
At the event, 13 USF students, all in costume, filed over to a lakeside stable made with stacked hay bales.
Jurgin, a student at IPFW, handed the reins to Rally to a wise man, who struggled for a moment to corral the cavorting llama before it was time for it to be led to the manger. Joseph led the donkey with Mary at his side down a walkway, while Whisper, a white sheep, nibbled at a hay bale onstage.
Then, brown-robed St. Francis, Brian Frushour, began to read.
I, Francis of Assisi, want you all to see with your own eyes how the Son of God did not have even the barest of necessities. Look at how his Virgin Mother put him in a feeding box for cattle, and with the animals standing nearby, see how he lay humbly upon the hay where he was placed .
Pictures snap, and a hush envelops the scene, just for a moment – a bit like the hush that will finally surround Cripe tonight.
I usually try to take Christmas Day and Christmas Eve off, she says. I have the best job. I’m around animals all the time. I’m one of the few people who has a job that makes people smile.