Nativity scene donkeys escape near Vail |

Nativity scene donkeys escape near Vail

Lauren Glendenning
vail daily
Chip Howard, left, Pastor Rob Wilson, center, and his son, Luke Wilson, take a sigh of relief Wednesday after catching up to the two donkeys that escaped from Eagle River Presbyterian Church. The donkeys were part of the church’s annual living Nativity scene, which went on without a hitch, donkeys and all, Wednesday evening.

What’s a living nativity scene without a little real-life drama to go along with it – that’s what local church officials and members are saying in hindsight.

The Eagle River Presbyterian Church was gearing up for its Wednesday night live nativity scene, an annual tradition, when two of the scene’s players went missing Wednesday.

The players, two donkeys, must have gotten spooked by the snow plow driving through the church parking lot Wednesday morning, Pastor Rob Wilson said. That’s the theory the church members came up with, anyway.

The donkeys were being held in a fenced-in pen, but they managed to push their way through it, Wilson said.

What happened next was a snowy journey from the Avon church, near Wal-Mart and The Home Depot, along the railroad tracks into Eagle-Vail.

Chip Howard, the church member who began the annual tradition there, had borrowed the donkeys from their owner and was the first to arrive and realize they had gone missing.

Howard was on his way to ski school – he teaches snowboarding at Beaver Creek – when he decided to stop by the church for a minute.

“They weren’t there – it freaked me out,” Howard said. “I was so afraid and nervous that the worst could have happened.”

Howard immediately called 911 when he realized the donkeys escaped. He could see fresh footprints in the morning snow and hoped they didn’t go too far.

A sheriff’s deputy quickly arrived and the two decided to follow the footprints down the railroad tracks. Howard set off on-foot, while the police officer drove along Highway 6.

Howard found himself hiking through a remote area and knew he wouldn’t be making it to work.

“I called them at ski school and told them I couldn’t make my lesson because I was chasing a donkey,” Howard said. “I knew it would be a while.”

The Sheriff’s Office helped set up a block near the Kayak Crossing apartments, between Eagle-Vail and Dowd Junction, so they could stop the donkeys if they made it that far, Howard said.

By then, Wilson had arrived and started running along the tracks toward Minturn to catch up with Howard. The police came in from the other side and they ended up cornering the donkeys and luring them back, Wilson said.

The animals were never in harm’s way, he said.

“They went up the railroad tracks – they were just having a good day,” he said.

Howard said he was so concerned about the animals – his first obligation was to return them safely to their owner, he said.

The snow was falling down on them as they walked the donkeys back toward the church, which made Wilson think about Joseph and Mary and their long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

“I thus renamed the two animals Mary and Joseph,” Wilson wrote in an e-mail to his congregation Wednesday. “I pondered how they must have asked time and time again, ‘what is God up to with us.’ I pondered whether amidst the pressure, Joseph ever had to run down the family burro with Mary yelling out instructions! All of these little distractions with so much going on already.”

Wilson said he hoped the adventure could help God find everyone in a still, quiet moment that would help them sense his presence, he wrote.

In the end, Howard said the living nativity was one of the best he’s ever seen. Maybe it was because the donkeys were back safe and sound and the turnout for the community dinner was so good.

“It was an adventure, but I’m glad it all worked out,” Howard said. “We got what we set out to accomplish.”

Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or

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