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Prancing and Pawing and as Real as Snow

Four reindeer visit L.A., far from the frozen North, proving they are more than just a myth.

November 26, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Alina Mezner stood in front of the new exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo, scrutinizing the beige and brown furry, hoofed animals basking in the fine wood shavings of a canopied corral. Until that moment Friday, Mezner had thought the four-legged creatures were some kind of Christmas hoax.

"I thought they were deer they stuck antlers on," said the 35-year-old mother of two.

Yes, Alina, there are reindeer. In fact, four of them are at the L.A. Zoo, on loan from an Oregon reindeer farm for a limited holiday engagement.

Reindeer became part of Christmas lore thanks to "The Night Before Christmas" and, like most of that famous poem about Santa and his sleigh, are assumed by many to be fictional. They are not common in California zoos (although the San Diego Zoo has them year-round); in the wild in North America, they roam the northern stretches of Alaska and Canada.

Reindeer don't fly, but they are excellent swimmers. They are also good haulers and have been used to pull sleds, particularly in the northern circumpolar region of the world they inhabit. Reindeer are the only deer species in which both males and females have antlers. Usually, by Christmas, the adult males have shed their antlers and only the females still have theirs. Instead of Donner and Blitzen pulling Santa's sleigh, it should have been Donna and Britta.

Ensconced in a holiday setting labeled Santa's Zoo Workshop are Velvet, Belle, Jingle and Noel. Their names -- also part of the zoo gig; they acquired them upon arrival -- are painted in Hollywood Walk of Fame-type stars on the ground outside the enclosure. Towering over the scene are palm trees festooned in garlands.

On Friday -- the opening day of their zoo stay, which will last until Jan. 1, 2006 -- the adult females, outfitted with red halters over their snouts, ambled around their exhibit making a clicking sound, the result of a tendon that rubs across a bone in the foot. What looked like skinny pieces of dark beef jerky dangled from the branches of some of their antlers. It's called velvet, a leathery skin that is shed from the bone of their chandelier-like appendages.

Reindeer are not huge. These stand about 4 feet tall, and their antlers spread about 1 1/2 feet wide and 2 feet high.

As the reindeer munched on tubs of hay, they did not hesitate to thrust their racks of antlers -- yes, that is the correct term -- at one another to tussle briefly over food. But because Belle was constantly forced away, zookeepers separated her from the others. She lounged in an adjacent corral by herself.

"It's just a dominance thing," said Kelly Smith, the animal keeper who will spend much of the day with them.

"There's a lot of social stuff going on," said Robin Noll, a senior animal keeper. "They live in strict social orders where there's a dominant one, a leader." It's still unclear which is dominant at the zoo.

"Jingle appears to be the biggest," Noll added. "She's got the biggest rack of antlers."

They're not particularly friendly with their human handlers either. When Noll reached out to pluck some velvet off Velvet's antler, the reindeer flicked her head with a back-off attitude.

One reason these animals may seem like fairy tale creatures is that, in this country, they're usually not called reindeer -- at least not outside the farms across the U.S. that raise the animals to send them off to holiday events.

These cervids are technically caribou. "They're referred to as reindeer in the Old World -- Eurasia, Russia," said Noll, who is something of an expert on cervids. In the New World, or North America, Noll said, "they're referred to as caribou."

Reindeer, native mostly to the northern latitudes of Scandinavia, Lapland, Finland, Greenland, Russia and other Arctic Circle areas, inhabit both tundras and woodlands and are often raised for their meat and skins.

In some areas, they flourish. In other areas, they have languished and died, victims of climate changes and even the breakup of the Soviet Union, which meant the end of government subsidies to herders in areas once ruled by the defunct regime.

Reindeer have also registered on the radar of animal welfare activists who believe they should not be killed for clothes fashioned from their skins.

At the Los Angeles Zoo, the biggest obstacle they face seems to be the balmy weather, because their luxurious fur is more suited to the tundras of the Arctic than the hills of Griffith Park.

A giant standing fan at the back of the exhibit blows air across their exhibit, which offers both shade and sunlight. "I have misters for them," Smith said. A little white picket fence borders the exhibit, but visitors can get a fairly close look.

From Dec. 10 to 23, the zoo will keep the reindeer (and the sea lions) on extended display from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. as part of its holiday festivities, including live entertainment -- other than the animals.

"It's a magical animal," mused Jason Jacobs, the L.A. Zoo's public relations and marketing director. "If we had reindeer year-round, it wouldn't be as special."

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