By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Ever wonder what happens to Santa’s reindeer when they are not working Christmas Eve? Well just perhaps a few of those reindeer end up in Alberta at George and Linda Masse’s Trophy Tine Ranch just outside of Magrath, Alberta. The Masse family decided to get into the reindeer business earlier this year for the first time after years of raising Whitetail deer and bison for hunting preserves across western Canada. They downsized their Whitetail herd from 140 to 35 animals and brought 17 of their bison back to their acreage from where they were pastured up north and sold off the rest. While passing the time on a two hour road trip to attend a hockey game in December 2014, Linda stumbled across the idea of raising reindeer on her smart phone. George says it didn’t take him long to get on the same page.
“We were just in the process of changing things up when my wife found this article on reindeer and she said: ‘Why don’t we try to find some reindeer?’ So here we are with a few reindeer now,” says George with a chuckle.
Since there were only two registered reindeer farms left in Alberta, George had to do some tricky negotiating to get one now mostly retired owner to agree to sell her seven remaining older animals.
“She had a llama there that had always been with them as their guard dog. So that llama also got loaded into the back of our trailer when we bought the reindeer.”
George’s long term plan is to breed the five females by artificial insemination to create a herd of ten or so animals. He hopes to eventually train some of the young ones to pull a sleigh and be ready to do Christmas shows across the province. However, since finding out he has reindeer many have already begun calling this winter.
“We weren’t even thinking of doing Christmas shows at this point,” explains George. “We were just going to wait and start working with the young in two or three years. But the phone started ringing. Calgary phoned me. Edmonton phoned me. And I started getting calls from Lethbridge.”
When we spoke with George he was in process of planning his first ever Christmas display at the Lethbridge Christmas Expo on Nov. 28. He was trying to get his story straight for the kids who would come to see his two bulls at the Expo.
“I have had to come up with an explanation as to how I ended up with Santa’s reindeer,” said a perplexed George. “I kind of figured out the kids story: We don’t know what we get. Santa just comes and we wake up and this is what we got. And then when Santa needs them, we wake up in the morning and they’re gone. The one bull is retired, I’m gonna tell the kids because they are both really old, and the other one he is on call. If one of the young ones gets hurt or sick on Christmas Eve he has to be ready to go. I might just wake up one Christmas morning and he’ll be gone with Santa.”
According to George, it takes a particular set of skills to deal with deer, reindeer and bison as all three species remain wild at heart. With reindeer he draws on his 12 years of experience working with his other ungulates.
“The first thing I would say is don’t take any advice from a cattle guy,” says George with a chuckle. “You got to work real quiet. The quieter you can be the better off the whole thing will happen. They will move for you, but when they get to their certain spot they are just not going to go any further. That’s when you got to put the pressure on, but you can’t push them so far that things blow up. Or maybe one of them takes a charge at you.”
He has learned two important things while working with his new reindeer family over the past nine months: They are both more and less difficult to handle than his Whitetails.
“The Whitetails tend to be skitterish and stay 15 feet away until you’ve dropped the feed, and they won’t come near if there is somebody with you they don’t know. With the reindeer you go in with the feed and they’ll meet you at the trough. They don’t care if someone is with you. And you better start pouring or they will help you, and push the bucket around and spill it out on the ground. They are very calm and more sociable that way. But the other thing I learned this year; in rut season, with reindeer, do not go in the pen. Never go in the pen. The bulls are very unpredictable.”