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Reindeer facts from an expert
Clifford Shipley is a clinical professor of veterinary medicine at Illinois and the primary veterinarian for Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch.
Your specialty is in hooved animals. Can you tell us what you do day-to-day as a veterinarian?
I see a variety of species of animals almost daily. I also currently raise elk, mule deer and white tailed deer on my farm. So, I currently have all three species. My primary interest in the last few years has been the Cervidae species – elk, deer, reindeer. There are, I think, approximately 40 different species of cervidae in the world. I work with lots of local farms as well as consult in worldwide endeavors. I’ve been to Australia and New Zealand to work with them, so, it’s been fun.
How did you get interested in these animals?
Well, I’ve always enjoyed deer. I’ve been deer hunting since I was a kid, but I never thought about raising them or anything until about 20 years ago. The teaching hospital would get “deer calls.” People that raise deer would call us and want help – services, tests, routine healthcare. There wasn’t anyone who was willing to do this, so I started doing it. I continued to provide those services to deer farmers that they weren’t getting from anybody else. So, as you start providing services and word gets out that you do those things, more and more and more people call. Eventually, you build a reputation as being an expert, or by default, you’re automatically an expert. I worked with them enough that I felt that I wanted to start raising them as well so now I’m a “deer farmer”.
Can you tell me about these “deer calls?”
Well, white-tailed deer are notorious for getting into places they can’t get out of. Locally, I think my first deer call was a deer trapped in Memorial Stadium. I had a deer in Krannert a number of years ago. A buck went through the door and was inside. We finally had it removed and released on South Farms. A deer got into one of the Lincoln Avenue Residence halls. Probably the most terrified I’ve ever seen people was a deer that got into the Gifford (Illinois) nursing home – it went through a picture window and was going room to room scaring the residents. Those types of emergencies make it interesting as well as the “routine” farm work of testing, vaccinating and other health related issues.
How many animals are on your farm?
I started raising elk in 2002. I had been doing bison and elk work for several years and I decided I was dumb enough to try to raise them myself. So, I bought some elk from Wildlife Prairie State Park and have been raising them ever since. I’ve been raising white-tailed deer since 2003 and mule deer since 2006. I’m downsizing my elk herd because I don’t have enough room. Right now, I have about 40 white tailed-deer, 3 elk, and about 10-12 mule deer.
You do some work at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch. What has that been like?
We have a great veterinary client-patient relationship. I and a few other University of Illinois veterinarians do their work. That includes everything from routine vaccinations, running parasite evaluations, giving them advice on rearing and testing. We consult with them about displaying animals. We are their official “herd vets” for the USDA.
Are there different kinds of reindeer?
It depends on who you talk to. Typically, we look at reindeer as originating from northern Europe - from Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden. They’ve been farmed for more than 10,000 years. Their American cousins and/or the same species, depending on who you talk to, are the caribou. They run all the way across northern Canada and through Alaska, and there are five subspecies of Caribou. But they’re essentially the same animal. Some people use them interchangeably, but technically, they are American vs. Northern European.
This time of year, there are stories of Santa and his reindeer hooked up to a sleigh. Where did that story come from?
I’m not a historian, but reindeer have been used for transportation, for meat and for milk by the northern Europeans for centuries.
Have they been ridden for transportation, like a horse?
Typically, they would have them pull a sleigh. But they can be broken to “drive.” They are fairly easily broken to halter. They are very gentle and calm animals. They’re really cool – I like reindeer. And so, they have been pulling sleighs for years. And if my understanding is correct, St. Nick, originated from Europe. Pulling a sleigh full of toys to transport them would have fit into that folklore very easily. Reindeer are made to walk on top of snow. They have very large feet, and they actually do “click, click, click” because the tendons in their feet and legs cause that clicking noise. So “Up on the housetop, click, click, click,” is actually based on real sounds that they make.
Are there misconceptions people have about reindeer? Besides that they can fly?
Oh, now, reindeer can fly. You and I both know that. There are age restrictions for that though – that’s usually between the ages of 18 months and nine years or until your classmates tell you it’s not true. Most people don’t understand that reindeer have been farmed for thousands of years. They don’t understand their origins. They basically have been used for food and for coats or outerwear for thousands and thousands of years. It’s neat to be part of the folklore of Christmas, but there’s more to it than just that.
So you can eat reindeer?
Well, you can’t eat Rudolph or Donner or Blitzen, but the Laplanders and the Russians still conduct roundups and there are still a lot of northern Europeans that farm Reindeer to eat.
Do they make good pets?
They’re really incredible pets, because they’re so gentle and calm. They’re not probably a good house pet and I probably wouldn’t let them on the kitchen table, but from a pet standpoint, the people that have pet goats, pet sheep or pet cattle, they would fit in very nicely.
How big do they get?
The adult males will range from 300-400 pounds. And the females range from 200-300 pounds. The neat thing about reindeer is that both the males and females grow antlers and that’s different than any of the other Cervidae species.
Is there anything else people should know about reindeer?
Well, this is a pet peeve, but many, many people don’t know the difference between different hooved species. They mistake elk for reindeer. I’ve even had people ask if my elk were llamas. So, get to know your species – get acquainted with animals and the natural world!
Reindeer photos are courtesy of Hardy's Reindeer Ranch.
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