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Rudolph for Rent : From Their Oregon Ranch, the Gillaspie Family Provides Stand-Ins for Santa's Famous Team


REDMOND, ORE. — "Now, Bubba! Now, Minnie! Now, Peaches and Polly! On, Pepper, on! Ruby, on! Bo-Peep and Dolly. . . ."

Polly pulling Santa's sleigh?

Yes, the reindeer are on the road again, spreading Yuletide cheer in shopping malls from Virginia to San Diego.

Early Christmas morning, their year's work done, the last team will return home to their reindeer ranch here in central Oregon. Soon afterward, it will be antler-shedding season, then a summer at pasture, then breeding season, then another Santa season and another command performance impersonating Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

And, of course, Rudolph.

Basically, theirs is a two-month annual stint. "There's not much call for them in July," says Mike Gillaspie, who with his wife, Cindy, manages "Operation Santa Claus." They oversee the care and feeding of a herd of 100-plus reindeer on a 20-acre spread a few miles outside this farming community of 7,000, about 135 miles southeast of Portland.

Mike, a former teacher, laughs and says: "If anybody had told me 10 years ago that I'd be reindeer ranching. . . ."

He and Cindy, both 37 and married 10 years, have known each other since second grade. They took over management in 1984, but the ranch dates to the early '50s when John Zumstein of Redmond brought a small herd of reindeer from Alaska. In the '70s, the name, the herd and the property were acquired by Cindy's family.

The Gillaspies' decision to become reindeer caretakers was based partially on the lifestyle it promised: a rural setting with real neighbors and more time with their daughters, Marisa, 9, and Miranda, 7 1/2. The business is a family project, with the girls helping out in the gift shop. They also name the reindeer.

No reindeer is ever given one of the names Clement C. Moore made part of the American vocabulary with his famous poem that begins " 'Twas the night before Christmas." Cindy reasons: "What do you do when Comet dies of old age?" (On the road, reindeer assume the stage names of Santa's more famous octet.)

Through the years, the ranch has evolved from a kind of "mom and pop" operation that entered animals in local parades to reindeer supplier for such clients as Disneyland, the Los Angeles Zoo, films ("Ernest Saves Christmas," for one) and commercials.

The Gillaspies' lifestyle may encourage togetherness, but it does not provide privacy. Home is a ranch-style house on the reindeer ranch, which fronts Highway 126, a major east-west artery. Visitors, in the thousands annually, seem to think of the Gillaspies as part of the free exhibit.

"It's like living in a public park," Cindy says. "They dump their ashtrays, dirty diapers and garbage" and peek in on family back-yard barbecues. Until the Gillaspies put up a fence, she says, "People would wander through and put their kids on our swing set." Passing motorists with car trouble consider them sort of a Triple A annex.

Sometimes, visitors will even ask them to "go catch a couple of deer" so they can pose them with their children. No way, Cindy says: "People are so sue-happy. They get a foot stepped on, get poked by an antler. . . ."

Six teams of five reindeer (four mature animals and a young "Rudolph") are on the road now, traveling by truck and horse trailer. Each team is accompanied by two handlers who have been working with them since mid-October. All these reindeer--the Rudolphs included--are females. Mike explains that the bulls can be "very aggressive."

Once, he says, "I had a bull get me down and take me for a 45-minute ride. About a 350-pounder. I'd slipped on the grass and he was on top of me. . . ." Cindy, up at the house, couldn't hear his cries for help. Finally, he was able to grab an antler, grab a leg and wiggle away.

He has yet to be gored but "raking" by antlers is common. "No matter what you do with reindeer, they're still wild," he says. "The first rule of thumb, if you have them in close confines, is don't ever turn your back."

The herd numbers 102 "when everyone's home," as Cindy puts it. It includes a rare albino named Snowball that suffers sunburned antlers in summer; breeding bulls named Clyde, Rocky, Skippy--the orneriest of all--and Bullwinkle, and aged animals too arthritic to pull Santa's sleigh.

"You bring Santa. We'll do the rest," is the Operation Santa Claus slogan. Clients provide Santa, and the Gillaspies provide the rest, including reindeer, feed, handlers, harnesses (properly inscribed "Dancer," "Prancer" and all), sleigh and Christmas music.

Each of the teams now on the road will make about 25 stops, most of these at shopping malls where children, some curious and some skeptical, come to gawk. They want to know, of course, why Rudolph doesn't have a red nose. The trainers have answers for the most-asked questions: Rudolph's nose turns red "only on foggy Christmas Eves." Santa's reindeer are tethered "so they won't fly away."

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