Everybody knows Santa’s reindeer, Dancer and Prancer, Comet and Cupid, Donner and Blitzen and, of course, Rudolph. Now we’d like you to meet Holly and her two offspring, Snowflake and Blizzard, who live on a farm just outside Centreville, Michigan.
It turned into a family affair when the Brueck family decided to start raising reindeer eight years ago. Larry and Vicky kicked around the idea, and it wasn’t long before their son Josh and his wife, Carrie, were also onboard. Larry laughs, “There always needs to be replacements in case one of Santa’s reindeer gets sick or hurt, and we thought having them around would be a lot of fun.”
This was right up Josh’s alley since he is a park ranger with St. Joe County in Michigan. “We got Holly from a woman in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when she was 1 month old,” he says. “She nuzzled right up to us so we knew she was the one to bring home.”
Not wanting people to confuse them with Santa’s reindeer but still keeping with the Christmas theme, they chose the names Holly, and Snowflake and Blizzard for her offspring. It is a challenge to breed and raise reindeer in captivity because the leg muscles don’t develop properly, which makes it hard for them to stand and feed. Part of this is due to the fact that they don’t have lichen, their natural food source that grows abundantly in Lapland and around the Arctic Circle.
So, what else do the reindeer do while they are waiting for Santa to call? The three of them, especially Holly, are celebrities in the area. Each year from two weeks before Thanksgiving until about a week before Christmas, their weekends are spent at area shows. Josh says, “Both young and old love to come and see a real live reindeer. Since there are only a few reindeer farms in Michigan, it’s not something you see too often.”
They have 12 shows booked this year, sometimes two in one day. Larry says, “It’s a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of work. We have to get them used to people and loud noises so they don’t get spooked. We set up a dog kennel with a border fence two feet away from that. We always take our own feed and water for them, and it’s usually freezing cold standing out there for five hours!”
APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) also imposes some strict guidelines on them so they can go to the shows. They are inspected twice a year in addition to representatives of the agency going to two shows a year to make sure the health of the animals and spectators are both protected.
With all these restrictions, I wondered if they have ever had any problems at a show. “Well, you’ve heard about the reindeer games, they certainly like to play them,” Josh snickers. “Holly and her kids are pretty smart. They know if you have a cookie in your pocket and, since most kids see Santa first, they have candy canes too. Holly is pretty slick at snatching candy canes from kids!”
The reindeer know if anyone has had pancakes for breakfast because they can smell the syrup. One of Josh’s favorite things to do is ask children how they liked their pancakes. “The kids think I am some kind of psychic,” he says. “But the one thing reindeer don’t like is the smell of cigarettes. If anyone has been smoking, they try to pull away and are hard to hold.”
They can do this because reindeer have a strong sense of smell. Around the Arctic Circle they use this to their advantage to sniff out the “reindeer moss” as the lichen that is buried under the snow is referred to in the north.
These creatures have some other interesting traits such as:
They are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light, which helps them see things like white fur in the snow. Their eyes change color with the seasons, going from golden green in summer to blue in winter to help them see with the lack of light. Remember, most of them do live at the North Pole.
Their fur is specially designed to be as warm as physically possible since they have to survive temperatures of up to minus 60 degrees. Air surrounds each hair, which is hollow and also filled with air, making a really well-insulated and thick winter coat.
Many female reindeer have antlers so it’s hard to tell males and females apart. Christmas reindeer are always depicted with antlers. Since females lose their antlers in summer and males shed theirs in December, this means Santa’s sleigh is pulled by females or young males who are continually replaced. Sorry, Rudolph and gang!
Reindeer can run 50 mph and have a trotting gait that makes them appear to fly, especially when they are running in powdery snow. No one has been able to clock how fast they do fly. This brings us to the million dollar question, “Do reindeer really fly?”
Josh has a theory on this point. “I know they have to practice flying sometimes. I have sneaked out to the barn in the middle of the night and at all different times. I haven’t seen them fly yet, but I think that may be a part of the magic. Remember, they are really smart and the only time people are supposed to see them fly is on Christmas Eve.”
Right now the reindeer live on the farm where Larry grew up. His mom and stepfather, Dolores and Ron Hamilton, live there and keep a watchful eye over them. They will be transitioned over to Josh’s place as soon as the place meets state specifications for keeping specialty animals.
Do they make good pets? “Absolutely!” Carrie says. “Their natural disposition is to just go with the flow, and they are very fast learners. They’ve pulled a pony cart on the farm and they acclimate easily to being saddled. Our kids, Juli and Corban, love playing with them. Juli’s favorite thing is to ride them like a horse.”
So, is it really worth all the work to have them, I wondered. It was a unanimous “Yes!” right on down to little Corban’s big smile as he petted Holly. They all hope Santa’s reindeer stay healthy for a long time because they really don’t want to send any of theirs to the North Pole any time soon.