For hundreds of years we have celebrated Christmas and there is a certain magic surrounding the end of December. Images of children making a snowman, Christmas trees dressed in gold and red sparkling in a window and, of course, Father Christmas flying through the sky on his sleigh pop to mind. Christmas is a time for Christians to give thanks for the birth of Christ, and for people to spend time with their loved ones.
The idea of eight reindeer, led by Rudolph, pulling Santa’s sleigh is fairly modern, although the connection between Christmas and reindeer goes way back to the fourth century to Nikolaos of Myra, the Saint that Father Christmas is thought to be based on.
Sinterklaas, a legendary Dutch figure, came a little later and according to folk tales he rode a white horse over rooftops and carried a big, red book which had a list of children’s names and detailed whether they has been good or bad.
The link between reindeer and Christmas is so strong that they are not, typically, animals that we pause to consider throughout the year. However, reindeer, like many other species, are highly exploited for their meat, blood and, sadly, as Christmas entertainment.
How are reindeer exploited?
Reindeer populations are rapidly declining and yet the demand to ‘rent’ them for Christmas events, cull them for their meat and harvest them for their blood is increasing year on year.
Reindeer meat has traditionally been eaten by many including Norwegian, North American and Siberian indigenous populations.
However, reindeer meat is also growing in popularity in the UK, especially at Christmas markets in reindeer burgers and as an unusual, new, ‘festive’ meat.
A few years ago the supermarket Lidl launched reindeer carpaccio as well as reindeer steaks for consumers looking for something a little different for their party guests.
As a result of increased demand for reindeer products, the farming of these beautiful animals has increased. In 2014, the cervid livestock industry (which encompasses elk, reindeer and deer) was one of the fastest growing industries in rural America.
This means even more animals kept in captivity. Even more animals being slaughtered for needless consumption.
This is also having a knock on impact on other wildlife such as wolves and bears, natural predators of reindeer, which are being shot to protect the deer, which are now considered a prime commodity.
Reindeer are seen as four legged cash machines — a source of income for those in the meat industry but they are also marketable as an attraction. Every year hundreds of reindeer are rented out to shopping malls and garden centres as a Christmas prop to attract business.
According to Cindy Murdoch, a board member of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, reindeer rental owners are fully booked around Christmas and from our own research it appears that the price of renting a pair of reindeer can be as high as £995.
“But the children get to learn about reindeer…”
Many would argue that seeing reindeers like this is educational for children. We agree. It is education — poor education. Children should not be taught that animals are props. Children should not be taught that animals are commodities to be rented, owned, bought or sold. Christmas is a time for kindness, not for enslavement.
In their natural habitat reindeer can roam up to three thousand miles a year crossing through freezing water and over treacherous mountains. Being kept in a small pen for weeks, therefore, is a far cry from their natural habitat and is just another example of human exploitation of animals for utterly unnecessary reasons. There are plenty of alternatives to real reindeer at Christmas events such as using models or employing people to dress up as them. Children have incredible imaginations and animal welfare must be the paramount to having an unusual attraction this Christmas. Reindeer don’t need to work, they need to live.
How to raise awareness
If you are concerned about an event that may be using reindeer as entertainment, the first thing that you can do is provide a little advice. Perhaps start by writing a polite letter to the event organiser setting out your concerns. You could rip this article out of the magazine and send it to event organisers or set up a local petition to show organisers that people are not in favour of the use of live animals as entertainment at Christmas events.
How are they treated in our countries?
Reindeer are used even more barbarically in other countries. The ancient tradition of harvesting blood from reindeer is astonishingly cruel, yet something that many are unaware of.
The antlers of reindeer are truly incredible. Reindeer grow their first set of antlers when they are about two years old. Male antlers can grow as long as 1.3 metres and weight up to 33 pounds (nearly two and a half stone).
Reindeer use their antlers to dig for food, such as lichens, in thick snow. It is natural for male reindeer to shed their antlers once a year in November.
The shedding normally takes between two and three weeks and is triggered by a drop in testosterone after rutting. Luckily for the reindeer, this natural shedding causes no discomfort and is a completely natural process.
In Russia, antlers are known as ‘horns of gold’ and after a push on research in the early twentieth century, it is believed that a substance called pantocrin (commonly called antler velvet) is the reason that antlers are so highly sought after. Pantocrin is an alcohol extract found in the antlers of moose, elk and deer and is believed to have an anti-aging effect as well as being beneficial in treating arthritis and damaged neural tissues. There are also some claims that pantocrin increases libido and sexual performance, especially for men, and therefore, it is generally sought after by middle-aged man.
The problem is that when the reindeer begin to naturally shed their antlers, the antlers begin to calcify — meaning that they begin to mature into bone. The products which can be made from antlers which have begun to calcify are downgraded pharmaceutically and therefore, antlers are removed surgically from live animals in a truly horrific process called harvesting.
The reality of reindeer farming
The reindeer are herded into a cutting chamber where a press closes in around them whilst the floor lowers, so that the animal is left in suspension. Its head is rested on a ledge and men stand on the deer’s back and head whilst they remove the antlers. Reindeer antlers are covered in blood vessels and nerves and it appears that the animals feel immense pain during the procedure. Studies have found an increase in heart rate, struggling and reduction in appetite following harvesting. Furthermore, there are reports that the deer scream during the procedure.
This is a highly upsetting procedure for these poor animals. Deer are not killed for their antlers, but they are put through this procedure regularly as their antlers can grow as much as 2.5cm per day.
Why does this happen? For the pantocrin, most of which is exported to Asia, but also for the blood within the antlers.
The blood within the antlers is believed to have similar benefits to the pantocrin, and is used for bathing in, due to the health and wellbeing links associated to it. Whilst reindeer antler harvesting in the UK is illegal under animal welfare laws, the import of these products is not.
What can we do to help?
In light of this, we have created a petition, which you can find the link to on our website. We want to ask Russia to stop harvesting blood and antlers from reindeer to raise awareness for this relatively unknown animal welfare issue.