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Published December 13, 2008, 12:00 AM

Reindeer ranch

When Santa Claus chose reindeer to pull his sleigh full of toys through the Christmas skies, he definitely picked the best beast for the job, said Vern Hoselton, owner of one of the few reindeer herds in this part of the world.

By: Paulette Tobin, Park Rapids Enterprise

DRAYTON, N.D. — When Santa Claus chose reindeer to pull his sleigh full of toys through the Christmas skies, he definitely picked the best beast for the job, said Vern Hoselton, owner of one of the few reindeer herds in this part of the world.

Hoselton and his son and daughter-in-law, Kyle and Shannan Hoselton of Grand Forks, own eight of the strong, compact and curious creatures that are so uniquely suited to cold weather and so much a symbol of Christmas.

Of their tiny reindeer herd, Maggie, Moose, Panda, Ingrid and Peggy Sue live on Reindeer Ranch near Drayton, where the responsibility for their day-to-day care falls to Vern. Right now, three of the herd — Norma, Cookie and Chocolate — are living at a Santa Village in Fargo. All are female, except for Moose. He’s a steer.

Kyle Hoselton accompanies his father when they show the reindeer. The Christmas season is a busy time for them. This weekend, for instance, the reindeer are scheduled to appear Saturday at a mall in Bismarck and Sunday at the Old-Fashioned Christmas Festival in East Grand Forks.

For 2,000 years, people in the northern climes have domesticated reindeer. Today, people still herd reindeer in some parts of the world. Reindeer live wild, too.

Reindeer are designated as exotic animals in this part of the world, Vern Hoselton said. He doesn’t sell his reindeer for meat, and even though they’re strong enough to pull a sled, they don’t.

“I have them for the fun of it,” Vern Hoselton said. “But the reindeer is one of the most useful animals there is. You can drink their milk. You can eat their meat. You can ride them and use them as a pack animal. They’re capable of doing anything.”

Even pulling a sleigh through the sky? Vern smiles and says, “That’s just Santa’s magic reindeer.”

Vern and Kyle said they get lots of questions about Santa’s reindeer when they take their animals out to be seen in public. Kids will ask — Is that Rudolph? Where’s Santa? Do your reindeer fly?

“You really have to be on your toes,” Kyle Hoselton said.

Building a herd

The Hoseltons have owned reindeer for about 10 years. They acquired them from an owner near Bismarck and completed the paperwork to register themselves with the state of North Dakota and the USDA.

Kyle Hoselton said they started with three females and learned a lot about the animals as they went along, building their herd and breeding them. It’s been two years since they’ve had calves. Vern Hoselton said he thought he had a bull from Minnesota lined up this year for breeding. But the bull came up with a couple of false positives on its TB test, so reindeer love will have to wait until next season.

The Hoseltons have bottle-fed the animals at times, and they feed and halter-break the reindeer by hand. People who see a reindeer for the first time often are surprised by how small they are, Kyle Hoselton said. The animals, strong runners and swimmers, are about 4 feet tall at the shoulder and about six feet long. Both bulls and cows have antlers, which they shed every year and regrow. Maggie, for instance, has just her right antler right now, having lost the left one last Sunday.

‘Snoopiest animals out there’

Reindeer have skinny legs but very wide hooves which they use to paw at the snow to get to the grass underneath. They have broad muzzles and thick fur that traps air and helps insulate them from the cold. The Hoseltons’ reindeer range in color from very light brown to darker brown. Panda is a paint, with a multicolored face.

The reindeer can forage, but they’re also fed sweet feed, rehydrated beet pulp (which they love for the molasses, Kyle said) and alfalfa. They’re picky eaters, the Hoseltons said. With alfalfa, they eat the leaves but not the stems.

Although they’ve never milked any of their herd, Vern Hoselton has read that reindeer milk is so rich, just a drop will turn a cup of coffee white.

“They’re the snoopiest animals out there,” Kyle Hoselton said of the family’s reindeer. “They have to know everything. If you walk past the fence, they have to know why, where you are going and everything in between. They also are the smartest animal I’ve ever had on the farm. You try something with them one time, the next time they know where you’re going before you do it.”