Many people include a visit to see Santa, a grotto, a Christmas event or trip to pick a Christmas tree in their celebrations and have so much fun getting into the spirit of the season. Sadly, these attractions often include Santa’s reindeer, with families excited to see Rudolph and all his friends.
There are hundreds of captive reindeer being used in this way in the UK over the holiday time, but these activities can have a serious impact on the welfare of the animals involved.
So, you might think what’s the problem if these incredible animals are only used for a couple of months over the festive period?
Well, reindeer are highly sensitive creatures. They are living, feeling beings, not lifeless animatronic creations. They are wild animals that have never been truly domesticated. They have evolved over millions of years to live in freezing, wild open spaces with many of their own kind, a prey-animal always on alert, only feeling safe in large numbers. Their bodies are built for the arctic snow and wind, not for heaters in garden centres and shopping malls. They are adapted to walking many miles in wilderness and peace, not penned up in small areas with laughing screaming humans near them, calling them for photographs or being posed with whilst being tightly held in headcollars and camera flashes going off. Often the places booking reindeer for their event will only get a couple of animals, even more stressful for these sociable creatures, and they can be transported many miles to their booking.
Due to Covid-19, many places are not holding grotto events this year, and have thankfully replaced the real reindeer with animatronic versions which still create the squeals of joy and excitement from children and smiles on the faces of the grown-ups.
But, sadly, some companies are still using real reindeer to try and draw in the Christmas crowds. I heard of a couple of places locally, so checked them out myself...
We went to visit a site set up as a Christmas tree farm, promoting Santa and his reindeer. We found a solitary reindeer in a pen, fenced with random wire panels, metal gates and string. The enclosure was muddy with two small pine trees and patches of grass. There was a broken metal chair and wooden panels with nails sticking up, although there was a small shelter at least. It was close to a main road with lorries thundering past behind the reindeer, and the site was so noisy, used for industry and lorry repairs. There was no-one watching the reindeer, I spent at least an hour watching her and didn’t see anyone else. She was thin and had a stiff rear leg making her limp. It was so distressing to see.
A garden centre has two reindeer inside their building at their Christmas attraction. They are in a small space under bright lights and heaters, standing on a tiled floor sprinkled with straw. Nothing to hide behind to get away from the people pushing against the fence, noisy and echoing with shouts and seasonal songs.
Hopefully the cruel practice of parading these beautiful, vulnerable deer will become a legend just like Rudolph, and the funny, singing animatronic cruelty-free versions adopted by many places become the future Christmas tradition.
If you see captive wild animals being used, treated badly, kept in poor conditions or appearing distressed please do check out Born Free’s Raise the Red Flag campaign. You can report the animal and location to them, providing vital evidence to help bring these activities to an end.
Thank you, and Merry Christmas!