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Reindeer
For many years reindeer in British zoos and collections were divided into two 'groups': those that were owned by the Highland Reindeer Company (founded by the famous Laplander Utzi), and the rest. The latter, at three or four zoos - principally Whipsnade, Chester, and the Norfolk Wildlife Park - where they were kept in breeding groups and not halter trained. The Highland reindeer, on the other hand, were not only a wonderful sight grazing in droves across the Cairngorm Highland scenery, but were available in at least four trained teams of geldings for Santa's Christmas displays.


© the late Andy Smith R.S.A
These were hired for functions the length and breadth of the country. We are probably not the only zoo in Britain to have watched their local Christmas lights being switched on by some celebrity accompanied by a team of Highland-based reindeer to think, "We should be able to do that!"

In 1999 when noted, Norfolk-based waterfowl dealer and breeder, Trevor Lay, proposed importing a number of reindeer from continental Europe utilising modern, less-restrictive legislation, we thought it was a good opportunity to acquire our own group of young reindeer for training (as opposed to the traditional static zoo exhibit for exhibition - and breeding). In common with a number of other UK zoos and private collections, in particular Dudley Zoo and Martin Lacey, we purchased a small group of reindeer.

Although we established them with their own facilities, some of which were sponsored (Albion Fencing Company), we found them very prone to respiratory disorders and digestive upsets when exposed to any wet weather. It was when treating the animals for just such conditions that the male suffered a severe anaphylactic shock - due, probably, to the antibiotic being used by the vet. His head swelled up bulbously and, despite every effort, he died very quickly. The other collections experienced few, if any, problems, due, we discover, to their reindeer - at least for the first six months or so - being kept under cover. At the first sign of significant rain ours are now shut in, and that seems to have stabilised matters considerably.

Partly because of our experiences, we have been significantly put off attempting any training, sometimes feeling - exaggeratedly, we hope - that if we touched them they might drop down dead, or sick. Anyway, much later than anticipated we now have the reindeer - once nervous and flighty - approaching us voluntarily in a cautious but confiding manner. They have also accepted head collars, but anything more than that is being wildly optimistic.

Poem about reindeer at Christmas