Photos show police waist-deep in the Cape Fear River at Carolina Beach State Park as they tried pulling the swimming animals back to dry land.
“When you’re a police officer in a small island community, you may get some unusual calls,” the local department noted in a Facebook post.
Officers were dispatched to help state park rangers round up the escapees, who had been “performing in the live nativity scene” at Seaside Chapel in the community of Carolina Beach, some 140 miles southeast of Raleigh, police recounted.
They were finally brought to heel with the help of community volunteers and a “K9 with specialized herding skills,” noted the department.
One group with a particular beef about the incident was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“Please, to prevent future tragedies, will you stop using live animals in your events? Your sets and church members provide a perfectly lovely attraction on their own,” said a letter the animal rights organization sent to Seaside Chapel’s pastor, Jerry Vess, the Port City Daily reported Friday.
“Christian teachings are all about kindness — yet animals used in live Nativity scenes aren’t treated with compassion,” the letter added. “They’re often stressed from transport and from being in a strange environment … they may be chained or confined to small holding pens.”
The pastor’s wife, Dana Vess, told the newspaper that the calves — along with donkeys and sheep — are provided by local farmers, who bring them to the church on two weekends for the Nativity scene. They go home to their farms between “performances,” she noted. They’re kept in roomy pens, not chained, and were fed their usual food, according to Vess.
“The farmers deliver them and pick them up, check the pens and make sure they’re secure — it’s their animals, so they want to ensure everything’s good,” she told the Port City Daily.
The Vesses first realized the calves were missing when police knocked on their door late last Saturday and told them their actors were on the run. It wasn’t clear how they escaped from their pen.
The calves were on the lam for nearly 16 hours, according to the newspaper, and ended up about nine blocks north at the state park.
They won’t be returning to the Nativity scene, which will only involve donkeys and sheep this weekend.
Seaside Chapel’s “Journey to Bethlehem” — described as “an interactive walk-through Nativity complete with live animals” — attracted nearly 600 visitors on opening night Dec. 3, the church said.