Reindeer History

Silver calling for his mate.

In Europe, caribou are called reindeer, but in Alaska and Canada only the domestic forms are called reindeer. All caribou and reindeer throughout the world are considered to be the same species (Rangifer tarandus), but there are 7 subspecies. There are approximately 950,000 wild caribou in Alaska. Caribou are the Reindeer’s wild counterparts.

Reindeer were domesticated in northern Eurasia about 2000 years ago. Today, reindeer are herded by many Arctic peoples in Europe, Asia and North America including the Sami in Scandinavia and the Nenets, Chuckhi and others in Russia. Reindeer were introduced into Alaska and Canada during the 19th century, but most attempts failed. Captain Healy observed the Chuckchi’s herds in Siberia. After Healy’s account of the Siberian reindeer herds, in 1892 Reverend Sheldon Jackson, the General Agent of Education in Alaska, visited Siberia. Jackson wanted to help the natives in western Alaska secure a reliable source of food. Over the next few years he transported 1300 reindeer to Teller, Alaska.

Guests feeding Crystal.

Reindeer and Caribou are the only members of the deer family where the males and females both have antlers. These majestic animals drop their antlers each year and then grow a new, larger set. Male reindeer tend to lose their antlers in early December. Female reindeer usually keep their antlers until spring. While the antlers grow, they are covered with a soft furry skin, "velvet". The antlers are very sensitive, spongy and full of blood and tissue during the velvet stage. When the antlers harden in July and August the Reindeer quickly rub the velvet off.

Sandy with Agatha Christie & Crystal.

Reindeer and caribou have unique hairs which trap air providing them with excellent insulation. These hairs also help keep them buoyant in the water. They are very strong swimmers and can move across wide rushing rivers and even the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean. The feet of these animals are broad and flat with deeply cleft hooves. Their foot structure allows them to navigate the winter snows and the summertime spongy arctic tundra. Tendons snap across a bone in the foot, producing a clicking sound as the animals walk.

Jade at one year old.

Reindeer are vegetarians, feeding on grasses, mosses, leaves, and lichens. Female caribou eat 9 to 18 pounds of various lichens a day. In winter, the foraging animals dig deep holes in the snow in search of the precious food and will even defend their find. One of the so-called reindeer lichens, called cauliflower heads, is dyed and sold as trees for architect’s models. Our reindeer especially love dandelions, fireweed and pieces of apple.

Join us at feeding time to experience reindeer slobber first hand….literally! For more reindeer information, check these websites:

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