Wednesday, December 21, 2005

While Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen are preparing to pull St. Nick’s sleigh, Minnie, Molly, CJ and Spruce the reindeer will be celebrating Christmas at Applewood Farm in Whiteford, Md.

“It’s a natural fit, if Santa is going around the world,” says Brian Adelhardt, owner of Applewood Farm. “I can’t think of a more magical animal.”

Tales of reindeer are legendary, but there is fact behind some of those stories.

In March 2000, Mr. Adelhardt decided to add reindeer to the holiday attractions and activities already offered at his farm. He bought his first animals from Alaska through a Texas reindeer farmer. Applewood Farm will host Reindeer Days from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday (www.applewood

The idea that reindeer can fly probably originated from the way they propel their leaps with their hind legs. A single arc can carry the animal 100 feet, he says.

The animals have cloven hoofs, with a split in their foot, similar to cattle. The large size of the hoofs helps them dig through the snow. Further, their feet are flat, like snowshoes, which is helpful for running across snow.

“Reindeer are really acrobatic and put on quite a show,” Mr. Adelhardt says. “When it’s really cold and uncomfortable for us, they get exuberant. They will jump up, spin around and carry on.”

The clicking sounds that Christmas tales say occur when reindeer land on rooftops come from the noise made between the tendon and bone in the back of their legs, he says. Because reindeer have a good sense of hearing, they use the “click, click, click” to locate each other through snowy nights.

Maryland law prohibits owning deer because of concerns about spreading chronic wasting disease, so Mr. Adelhardt houses his animals in Pennsylvania, where deer farming is encouraged.

The deer are fed reindeer pellets with beet pulp. The animals also like to snack on raisins, carrots and apples. In the summertime, they bulk up for the winter, eating about 5 pounds of food per day. They are predisposed to eat less in the winter, eating about 2 pounds per day in cold months, Mr. Adelhardt says.

He is hoping Minnie and Molly are pregnant. The animals are bred in September and have calves in May, rarely having twins.

“Calves are 10 pounds when they are born,” Mr. Adelhardt says. “By two weeks old, they get little antlers.”

Of the 44 kinds of deer, there are only two types in which the females have antlers — reindeer and caribou, Mr. Adelhardt says. He is a member of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, based in Kalamazoo, Mich. Established in 1992, the organization is “dedicated to the advancement of public awareness of reindeer” through education, research and conservation.

Reindeer are indigenous to Northern Europe and Northern Asia and don’t need to rely on eating green vegetation in the winter, Mr. Adelhardt says. Conversely, caribou, which are taller than reindeer, are indigenous to North America and need green vegetation during colder months, he says. The reindeer living in Alaska were brought there from Europe by the U.S. government in the 1890s.

Some legends say Santa Claus may have more female reindeer than males pulling his sleigh, Mr. Adelhardt says, because male reindeer usually lose their antlers earlier in the year than females, so the females would still have their antlers at Christmastime.

“Spruce has dropped his as early as Oct. 15 and as late as Feb. 1,” Mr. Adelhardt says. “We always hope he keeps them through Christmas. They are so dramatic.”

Reindeer grow a new set of antlers every year, using the rack for defense and as a sign of status among other reindeer. Blood circulates beneath the skin that covers the antlers, providing the deer with a natural cooling system in the summer.

Along with stunning antlers, reindeer have beautiful winter coats, says William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Northwest. He holds a doctorate in anthropology.

When people have the animals as pets in warm climates, they have to be careful that the creatures stay cool during summer months, he says.

Reindeer are fit for cold weather, down to their noses, which are furry to prevent frostbite when eating snow. When reindeer lie down, they can contract the muscles in their legs to raise their body temperatures.

“They have hollow hair,” Mr. Fitzhugh says. “They are perfectly adapted for the Arctic. Their hair has insulation in it. Polar bears also do. Their fur is very good for clothes.”

Apart from making sure the animals aren’t overheated in the summertime, owners need to be on the watch for sickness, says Tom Scheib, owner of Dancing Reindeer Farm in Milltown, Wisc. He has about 70 reindeer. His herd appeared in the 1994 version of “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Because reindeer hide their illnesses to prevent appearing weak to predators, it is often difficult to tell when they are sick.

The northern part of Canada and Alaska never really thaw out, so the bacteria in much of North America doesn’t exist there, Mr. Scheib says. Brain worm, an internal parasite, and babesia, a tick-borne disease, are common sicknesses associated with reindeer in the United States.

“They have not built up any immunity to all the little diseases that live in the ground in the United States,” Mr. Scheib says. “Since the animals can’t talk to you, they can’t tell you what’s wrong.”

Keeping them healthy is important for breeding purposes, says Kyle Wilson, owner of Rocky Hill Reindeer in Knoxville, Tenn. He owns six reindeer. Routine vaccinations and visits with the veterinarian are important, he says.

“I select the breeding pairs,” Mr. Wilson says. “I pen them separately. That’s basically all there is to it. They take care of the rest.”

Although reindeer can be stubborn, they are smart and friendly, says Mike Jablonski, owner of Antler Ridge Farm in Hamburg, N.Y. He owns 30 reindeer and a garden center that he decorates during the holidays.

He says he wonders if the reindeer keep watch and tell Santa’s elves which children have been naughty and nice.

“Reindeer will remember if you are bad to them, or if you are good to them,” Mr. Jablonski says. “They don’t forget.”

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