Belle and Velvet (background) endlessly grazing in their temporary home at the San Francisco Zoo.

My very first zoo job was “reindeer intern” at the San Francisco Zoo, where I had cool reindeer artifacts and talked to zoo patrons about our beautiful antlered guests. The most common conversation I had went something like this:

Guest: So what are these guys?

Me: Reindeer.

Guest: No, what are they really?

Me: Reindeer.

Guest: No, I mean I know you’re doing the Christmas thing and they have muzzles, but what type of deer are they really?

Me: Reindeer.

Guest: Wait, there really is a such thing as reindeer?

Me: ??

It was actually pretty awesome for me to show them that at least one Christmas fantasy was real-except they don’t fly (yet).

So, reindeer are in fact real. They were domesticated from caribou and are considered a subspecies. There are a few differences between reindeer and wild caribou, but the most obvious one is size-reindeer tend to be about a foot shorter than their caribou cousins.  In a genetic study of Alaskan reindeer and caribou, there were significant differences between these two groups of animals, so although they are capable of breeding with each other, little genetic exchange has occurred.


Holly had a part of her antler that stretch out in front of her nose. When she lifted her head from a food bin, she frequently brought a lot of hay with her. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.


Holly was also a master at getting her muzzle off. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

They were domesticated for milk (yes! You can have reindeer cheese!), fur and meat and it is believed that they were domesticated before horses were.

The other topic that frequently came up was the difference between horns and antlers. Deer have antlers, which means that those great big head adornments fall off and regrow every year! Reindeer are one of the few deer species in which both the males and females have antlers.

In our particular group, we had 4 reindeer. Holly was the dominant one and she was a bully. But we spread the food out and she couldn’t be everywhere at once. Belle was second in command. She used to like to play in the water bowl. The others would sip and leave, but she would hit the inside with her hoof and splash in it. By the time she was done, she would often be soaking wet. Peppermint was the smallest female. She would lounge around in the grass and mostly just tried to stay out of Holly’s way. And then there was Velvet. I think he was most peoples’ favorite. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe because he was clearly the underdog in the exhibit. Maybe it was the way he slowly ambled around the exhibit instead of bounding around like the others. The way he walked reminded me of Eeyore. Maybe the others thought so, too.  I don’t know, but he won many hearts that Christmas.

On a non-reindeer note, Backyard Zoologist is taking a little holiday break to visit family. Posting will continue on the regular schedule of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on January 3, 2011. Happy Holidays!