December Creations: Ambriz brought Zoo Nights & Lights to life

A Christmas Nativity decorates the grounds at Gladys Porter Zoo as the Brownsville zoo prepares for Zoo Nights & Lights Monday. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The Gladys Porter Zoo’s famous Zoo Nights and Lights illuminated characters trace their origins to maintenance supervisor Natividad “Naty” Ambriz, who started making them in the late 1980s and has been refining the art form ever since.

Even though the zoo is operating under reduced hours and observing all of the now familiar COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing and mask wearing, it will put on Zoo Nights and Lights once again this year. The festivities are scheduled from 6-9 p.m. Dec. 3-6.

Ambriz, a certified welder, journeyman electrician and plumber, said he was working as a welder in the oil fields in 1986 when a friend told him the zoo was looking for someone to replace its longtime welder, who was retiring. At the time he was on two weeks rest from his oilfield job and agreed to take the zoo job on a two-week temporary basis only.

“I liked the work and, well, here I am,” Ambriz said Thursday as he drove a zoo courtesy cart over and around the paths where the lighted characters can be seen among the animal displays, in front of the Small World, outside the Special Events Building, Texas Aviary and Russell Aquatic and Ecology Center.

Ambriz said he likes all of the 120-some lighted figures and scenes, but his favorite is of Santa Claus riding a motorcycle with a sack full of toys on the back. It is displayed in the pizzaria area.

“I’m actually a biker myself. I ride a Harley. It’s one of my hobbies,” he said.

In front of the Small World is a nativity scene complete with Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, three wise men, angels, animals and the Star of David. It is the centerpiece of Zoo Nights and Lights and was the second piece Ambriz created. The first was the angels that accompany the scene.

The route Ambriz drove went past the pink flamingos, Gorilla Island, an igloo and eskimos in blue, a Jack-in-the-box with three jokers jumping out, and a blue seal bouncing balls on its nose. Along the way were live orangutans, spider monkeys, giraffes, zebras, lions and tigers.

“It’s a team effort,”Ambriz said. “Everyone in the maintenance department does their part.” He said it takes about three weeks for the crew of 10 to position all of the displays.

The nativity scene stays in the same place each year, but the other animals, marine life and birds, toys and toyboxes are repositioned to give maximum effect and make each year’s display unique.

Ambriz crafts the scenes on a steel table in the maintenance workshop, bending and welding 1/4-inch steel rods into shapes to suit his purposes. Then he uses 3/8-inch rebar to anchor the creations that aren’t attached to trees or poles to the ground.

Admission to Zoo Nights and Lights is $5 for adults, $3 for children 2-13, and children younger than 2 get in free. Traditional food will be on sale, and Christmas music will be provided by La Mission.