Animal lovers' efforts to help reindeer in tiny pens at an Encino Christmas-tree lot backfired Monday when one of the animals collapsed and died as its cage was being enlarged.
The 8-month-old fawn collapsed when workers entered its cage to unbolt a chain-link partition at the order of Los Angeles city animal-control officers.
"It probably died of heart failure," said Dennis Kroeplin, a city wildlife officer called to the scene. "It's not uncommon for deer to get extremely excited and keel over."
The operators of the lot at the intersection of Victory and Balboa boulevards were displaying five reindeer as the legendary sleigh-pullers Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen and Cupid.
Deluged With Complaints
Department of Animal Regulation officials said they ordered the 8-foot-wide cages widened after being deluged with citizen complaints about deer being penned up in trailers to promote tree lots.
Enlargement of the cages was ordered Monday by Tom Walsh, district supervisor at the city's West Valley animal shelter in Chatsworth. Guidelines developed by the American Zoological Assn. call for 500 square feet of space for such animals being caged for an extended period, he said.
"The deer were in excellent shape, and the food and sanitation was perfect," Walsh said. "But a cage with barely enough room to turn around in is not adequate."
He said Stuart Miller of Granada Hills, owner of the tree lot, readily cooperated with the order.
"If they had refused to comply, then you have us impounding Santa's deer. Oh Lord, I don't want to even think about that," Walsh said.
Miller, 44, blamed the deer's death on animal activists.
"I'm outraged," he said. "I've never lost a deer in the eight years I've been raising them. They made me do something the deer are not used to. We don't even have to enter their cages to clean them. The deer feel very safe in there."
Part of a Herd
Miller said the dead deer was part of a herd of 100 he raises at a Newhall ranch. They are kept in corrals there except during the winter mating season, when they are caged to prevent fights, he said.
He displays them at half of the 36 tree lots he operates each Christmas between Reno and San Diego, and has numerous government permits to keep and breed the animals.
Officials of the Humane Society of Ventura County said Monday that they investigated complaints about a display of Miller's reindeer in Thousand Oaks.
But Society officer Jo Ann Love said the five deer caged there were "well cared for," and no cage modifications were ordered.
The animals are fallow deer, a small European breed whose fur is white in warm weather. Although they are smaller than the reindeer related to caribou that sometimes pull sleds in Scandinavia, the grown fallow deer have horns and are frequently referred to as reindeer.
Raised for Hunters
Miller said he started his herd by buying 20 deer in 1978 from Fritz Burns, a developer of Panorama City. Burns, who has since died, began raising the deer in 1941 and displayed them yearly in the trailer cages that still are used, Miller said.
He said he bought the rest of his herd from farmers in Oregon who raise fallow deer to sell to private hunting clubs.
"If I have to stop displaying them, that's who I'll end up having to sell them to," he said.
Garn Theobald, manager of the Encino lot, said the deer are popular with children, who can pet them, although some adult animal activists have "harassed" lot workers.
"We've had nothing but irritation from people about the deer being in cages," Theobald said. He added: "The city told me they were getting calls every hour from people complaining. I even got a letter from a group of 9th-graders about abusing animals.
"But environmentalists really don't understand everything."
Workers at the Encino tree lot removed the dead deer from its cage before children could see it Monday afternoon, he said.