View Full Version : Reindeer grounded by disease fear

12-23-2002, 12:36 AM
Dec. 21, 2002

Reindeer grounded by disease fear


MARIETTA, Ga. - (KRT) - For reindeer, December is the busiest month. There are endless photo sessions at neighborhood schools, appearances at shopping centers, holiday parades and, of course, sleighs full of toys to deliver on Christmas Eve.

But this year, many reindeer won't make it off the farm. Several states, fearing the spread of chronic wasting disease, have closed their borders to all deer. Even red-nosed Rudolph - who, lore has it, remains at the North Pole until the big night - might find it trickier getting to every home this Christmas.

Though chronic wasting disease - a fatal brain disorder similar to mad cow disease - has not been found in reindeer, it has been detected in North American elk, white tail deer, black tail deer and mule deer, on farms and in the wild. Health officials in most southern, central and northeastern states fear the disease also could be carried by reindeer, so they have banned them along with other deer from entering their states.

That means farmers who raise reindeer primarily for Christmas events are suffering this year because they can't send reindeer to places such as Illinois, New Jersey and Montana. There were no reindeer in Christmas parades this year, and Santa arrived on a float rather than a sleigh.

"This has been devastating for a lot of reindeer farmers who make their living or earn extra money supplying reindeer for Christmas events out of state," said Pat Lavery, president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. "A few states have exempted reindeer, but in others, if you mention cervids (members of the deer family), they don't want to talk to you. Some states have a total lockdown where the deer cannot even leave the farm, and in effect, that puts the farmers out of business."

During the past decade, reindeer farming has spread across America. No longer limited to Arctic regions, reindeer are being raised as far south as Georgia and Alabama. Reindeer are adaptable to climate, and farmers have learned that having a herd during the holidays can be more profitable than a field of Christmas trees.

"You have to accommodate the animals, give them plenty of shade and water, and in some cases, people have put up sprinklers," said Greg Finstad, program manager for the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "In Alaska, reindeer is a livestock animal that we raise for meat. In the Lower 48 states, people consider reindeer as pets, so the last thing they would do is eat them. They look like a wild animal, but they become socialized to people and act like a dog or a cat."

Like many Northerners who have abandoned snowy winters in favor of warmer weather, reindeer have headed south. Prancer, Dancer, Dasher and Vixen have found a nice place on the outskirts of Atlanta, where they spend summers roaming a 5-acre farm or lounging in the air-conditioned barn that costs more to cool than a 3,000-square-foot home.

"They work six to eight weeks a year, and the rest of the time they are living a life of leisure just eating and hanging out," said John Roper, 62, a horse breeder who has 18 reindeer on his farm. "They are expensive to raise, and sometimes I don't even break even. But it's worth it just to see the expression on the faces of the kids and the adults when the reindeer pull up. Not many people in Georgia have ever seen real reindeer."

On a recent appearance at an elementary school in suburban Atlanta, the four reindeer were a bigger hit than Santa. Roper, who has a long white beard, puts on a red Santa suit and talks to kids in his sleigh - a converted motorized golf cart painted red.

The temperature was 64 degrees and the ground was covered with leaves rather than snow. None of that seemed to matter to 6-year-old Chelsea Frederick, who wanted to know two things: "How do they fly? And where's Rudolph?"

"Everybody asks about Rudolph," said Roper's assistant, Sandy Demore. "We tell them he's back at the North Pole polishing his nose so he can guide Santa's sleigh. He only works Christmas Eve."

She divulges another secret: All of Santa's reindeer are females. The males lose their antlers shortly after their rutting, or mating, season, which ends about the time the Christmas season begins. Females lose theirs after their babies are born, usually in April or May.

More than 200 reindeer farms operate in the United States, according to the reindeer association. Until recently, there was more than enough work to go around. Now, it seems, everyone is getting into the act.

"Christmas tree farmers rent reindeer for a couple of years and decide they can do it too," said Gordon Poest, a retired reindeer farmer who wrote the book "Raising Reindeer for Pleasure and Profit." "Reindeer are good at hiding symptoms until the last minute, so if an illness develops, a farmer who does not have a background in farming animals might not notice it. That's where experience comes in handy."

Chronic wasting disease was first found in 1967 in Colorado, but for more than 30 years it was confined to a small area in the state's northeastern region. Then it began popping up in farm-raised herds of elk in neighboring states. Last winter, it crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin's wild deer population. Now, the disease has spread to the West, Midwest and Canada; four cases have been documented in Illinois.

Thousands of wild and domesticated animals have been slaughtered to control its spread. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing regulations that states can use to monitor the disease.

"In the big picture, it will benefit the entire deer industry, including reindeer," said Dr. Lynn Creekmore, a veterinarian with the USDA's National Center for Animal Health Programs in Ft. Collins, Colo. "Right now, we don't know how widespread the disease is. There has been increased awareness in the farming industry, but there is a lot more we need to learn."

Illinois hunters can bring deer and elk caught elsewhere into the state as long as the carcasses are taken to a licensed meat processor or taxidermist within 72 hours. The state is closed to live deer transport unless they have been in a chronic wasting disease monitoring program for five years. Few reindeer, according to breeders, can meet that requirement.

"We hope states will take a second look at this and somehow modify their ban or make exceptions for reindeer," said Cindy Gillaspie, who with her husband, Mike, owns one of the nation's largest reindeer farms, Operation Santa Claus in Redmond, Ore. "They could grandfather in the testing we have done for the last two and a half years. Five years ago, no one was thinking about chronic wasting disease."

This year, Gillaspie said, the farm had to keep nearly all of its 85 reindeer at home because it couldn't get permits in 28 states. Business, she said, is down about 90 percent.

Some farmers - including Lavery, who owns Santa's Hitching Post in Gloversville, N.Y. - have sold some of their reindeer to stay afloat. At one time, he had 50 reindeer; now he has 26.

"I had to sell all my calves to recoup expenses," Lavery said. "But we couldn't risk having 40 or 50 deer if they decided to close all interstate transport. We would have all these deer and nowhere for them to go."

Reindeer farmers face another concern: They don't want their herds to catch the disease.

"We don't want to take a chance and pick it up and bring it home. That would be foolhardy," Gillaspie said. "But the most we do is go to shopping centers and corporate parties downtown.

"I don't know where we would run into another deer and pick it up. The way things are now, it's like a noose around our necks."

01-01-2003, 02:41 PM
So THAT is why I didn't see any deer this year!
I thought santa was on to my plans!! http://www.jesseshunting.com/forums/style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/smiley-faces-toast-beers.gif