On June 4, 2023, Jim and Sherry Andelin were at home on their monthly Zoom call with family when their house began to shake. They also began to hear loud banging noises outside. Concerned, Jim went to the window and saw smoke and flames rising from the Metro Richmond Zoo located adjacent to their house.
“We have a fire!” he yelled, sprinting to the front door.
Sherry frantically repeated what Jim had said to the family members on the screen and then abruptly ended the call, running to help her husband. Their bewildered family members immediately knelt to the ground in prayer.
The Andelins made it outside to see portions of the zoo they’ve run since 1995 up in flames, specifically the workshop area, animal hospital, feed storage room, and zookeeper service area.
It was nearly 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, so the zoo was void of patrons, and employees were safe, but everyone was terrified for the animals inside the hospital and keeper area. Not only that, but they feared the flames would spread to their nearby home or other parts of the zoo.
Jim tried to approach the door of a burning building, but it was too hot to touch. He switched directions, tried another building, and managed to get inside and grab a container holding a one-month-old penguin.
First responders soon arrived and began working with Jim to rescue first a kangaroo, then an armadillo, three meerkats, an Indian fruit bat, and three budgie birds that had been trapped inside.
Firefighters worked through the night, flowing upwards of 350,000 gallons of water on the massive fire. For perspective, a standard residential fire may not even require 1,000 gallons of water.
Gratefully, the fire didn’t continue to spread, but all four of the buildings that had caught fire before the firefighters arrived were completely destroyed. In addition, nine vehicles were lost, an x-ray machine, anesthesia machine, blood machines, and all of their medicine. Other costly tools and equipment were also gone.
The next morning, Sherry was sitting in her home, unable to walk due to a strained knee from standing up most of the night before.
“I look out the window, and I see a guy from our ward walking down the driveway with his son,” Sherry remembers. “I wondered what he was doing, and then I noticed they were carrying work gloves. And it dawns on me—they’re coming to help. The very next day after the fire, they were coming to help clean up the mess. … We had 40 people from our ward show up to come help.”
The Andelins’ beloved zoo was covered in ashes, but they wouldn’t be rising from them alone. Not only members from their Latter-day Saint ward, but also many others from the community arrived to help clean up. Other people donated money to help replace lost equipment.
“I still cry every time I think about it,” Sherry says. “I feel so, so grateful.”
Fire marshals later said the fire was likely due to a malfunction in a charger for one of the zoo’s golf carts.
Determined to rebuild as soon as possible, Jim moved zoo operations into one of their large barns, and they reopened for business just 6 hours after the fire.
And now, just seven months later, the Andelins are holding the 21st live nativity pageant—an event some questioned whether or not they could pull off, but something Jim knew he had to do.
“We had several people say, ‘You know, you can just not do it this year.’ But we felt that this is the Lord’s program. And there’s been so many miracles, so we press forward. And now we’re in a good position for the pageant. We’ve had great weather, and we feel really blessed,” Jim says.
Perhaps the name of the zoo’s live nativity pageant is more relevant than ever this year: The Miracle of Christmas.
More than 10,000 people come to the Metro Richmond Zoo every year for the free event. The nativity is shown three times each evening on December 20, 21, and 22 and is complete with live camels, donkeys, goats, sheep, and dozens of volunteer actors.
And the Andelins are not alone in putting the massive event on. The Midlothian Stake of the Church co-sponsors it (with the zoo) and other churches in the community are involved. Multiple choirs will be performing, including the Chesterfield Baptist Choir, the Clover Hill High School Brass Quintet, the Virginians Barbershop Chorus, as well as full-time missionaries serving in the Richmond Virginia Mission.
“We’ve all been blessed with different skills and talents and experiences—we’ve been blessed with a zoo. And we are always thinking of what we can do to bless others’ lives with the zoo,” Sherry says.
Jim has been working long hours the past couple of months to ensure the zoo would be ready.
“Our whole intent is to bring more people to Christ,” he says. “To help them feel the Spirit and the true meaning of Christmas in a sacred way. … And it’s been amazing how many people have been touched by it.”
Community member Breanna Ford has been attending The Miracle of Christmas since she was a child and in recent years has participated in the pageant as an angel.
“The Miracle of Christmas brings light to my holiday season because I get to connect with my family. Not only does it bring us together, but it brings thousands of believers together to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is a beautiful experience, and though I am not a Church member, it inspires me to grow closer to Him every year,” she says.
The Miracle of Christmas is amazing, and so too is the story of how the Andelins built their zoo from the ground up.
We Built a Zoo
Jim describes the Metro Richmond Zoo as a hobby that got out of hand. He grew up on a farm in Washington, where he had the opportunity to learn to care for many animals, and he wanted his children to have a similar experience.
Their home in Virginia, however, didn’t have enough land for the farm animals he knew (such as cows and horses), so Jim bought a few exotic birds, along with ducks and geese. Those animals soon led to more, including a couple of monkeys and an emu.
Jim and Sherry have seven children, and when their oldest was in second grade, his teacher asked each of the students what animals they had as pets. When the Andelin’s son told his teacher about their exotic animals, she didn’t believe him.
“He came home pretty upset,” Jim remembers. “So I took a monkey to class, and they believed him after that.”
The teacher then asked if she could bring the class on a field trip to see the rest of the animals. And soon enough, other classes wanted to come too.
“We thought it was important for education, so I said ‘sure,’” Jim says. “I didn’t realize that there were 32 elementary schools in our county at the time, and pretty soon, we had a school [group] showing up about every day.”
For several years, Jim would work his job as a general contractor building homes in the morning, then come back to his house to meet a couple of school buses. He’d put on a short program for the kids, show them around the yard, and then go back to work.
Eventually, neighbors raised the question of whether the Andelins had the proper zoning to have their animals. The family looked into it and was able to secure the proper zoning, but it was a process they’d have to repeat every four years.
“That’s when we looked for another location and found the land where we are currently at,” Jim says. He used his skills to build a home on the land for their family and the structures needed for a zoo. “There were so many people that wanted to come to see us, but we hadn’t been open to the public; we had just done school groups. But we decided we would try and open and if people came, that’d be great.”
The zoo officially opened to the public on April 22, 1995, and the rest is history. Over 300,000 people now come to the privately owned and operated zoo every year. The zoo is continually expanding: the Andelins have 350 acres of land, not all of which is yet in use. The zoo is home to 2,000 animals representing 190 species from around the world.
“We are doing a lot of great things in conservation and working with various zoos throughout the world,” Jim says. For example, 110 cheetah cubs have been born at the zoo and 300 African penguins.
“It’s incredible to me that we have these animals right here on our property,” Sherry says.
The Andelins hadn’t always planned on running a zoo, but now it is a rich, meaningful part of their lives, allowing them to serve and educate the community—and to share the Light of Christ with thousands each Christmas. And even something as discouraging and costly as a fire isn’t going to slow them down.
“[By] having an understanding of the gospel and what’s really important in life—your family and having a close relationship with the Savior and always striving to do right—I’ve always had the peace of knowing that no matter what happens in life as long as I have those things, the other things are not that important,” Jim says. “So I didn’t get discouraged or have a ‘why me?’ type attitude—that’s just not the way I am. As soon as the fire was put out, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get to work and get things built back up and get rolling.’ … Life is full of challenges, and this is a challenge that we’re facing, and we just hit it head on.”
You can watch a short documentary about the Metro Richmond Zoo fire in the player below. And find more information on the Miracle of Christmas here.