Jan and Roger Cavanaugh bought their first herd of reindeer 28 years ago. Since then, they have had to sell several and lost their last reindeer, Prancer, to old age last November. This spring, they decided to grow their herd again. Their newest additions, Comet and Cupid, females aged one year and seven months respectively, are ready for the holiday season, as soon as they get spruced up.
Both reindeer have white colorings and Jan has been plotting how to prepare them for events later this month. “We haven’t figured that out yet, but we got to get going,” says Jan.
After working with reindeer for almost 30 years, Jan is a wealth of reindeer knowledge.
For example, female reindeer, known as cows, have antlers that fall off every year just like male reindeer do. In fact, cows keep their antlers longer than the males in order to protect their young.
Also, reindeer have hollow hairs like polar bears which allow them to stay warm in the frigid Wisconsin winters. In the summer, the large coat can be challenging. The reindeer stay in a large pen equipped with fans during the summer months, but it’s not always enough. “I’ve had to ice reindeer down in the summer,” says Jan.
As for the verse, “Up on the housetop, click, click, click?” the lyricist knew his reindeer facts. According to Jan, as reindeer age the tendons in their legs develop a clicking sound as they walk. The sound helps reindeer find each other in dense snow or fog.
Jan enjoys educating visitors about the reindeer without taking away the holiday mystery. “We tell children the story that our reindeer can be taught to fly,” says Jan. Motocross ramps throughout the farm serve as perfect practice runways. “Santa has to sprinkle his magic dust on them and then they can fly,” she says.
For many people, the reindeer mystique is alive and well. Most people who see the reindeer are surprised. “Some people have told us that they thought they were not real,” says Jan. But most people are surprised at their small stature. “Reindeer are more petite,” she says.
When Michelle Schultz got married, she knew she was inheriting big animals, but she had no expectations of entering the nativity scene business. “I married a buffalo farmer who had odd pets,” she says. At that time he had buffalo and two camels. A couple of years later they became licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture and Glacier Ridge Animal Farm was born. They now have a 14-acre petting zoo with 30 different species of animals that they also use for parties, animal therapy and holiday displays.
Michelle and her husband, Mark, travel with their portable zoo to private events that range from secular photo ops to live nativity scenes. “I like to dress them up with santa hats and jingle bells. I set up a little mini holiday photo booth,” says Michelle.
Among the traveling heard are the two 9-foot tall camels, Cleo and Khalidja; two Sicilian donkeys, Izzy and Bella; two horses, Big Mac and Smokey; and a group of curly-haired goats, the favorite of which is a white male named, Twitch. Twitch looks the most like a sheep, which they can’t have on the buffalo farm. “Sheep carry diseases that kill buffalo, so we have curly-haired goats,” says Michelle.
Also among the motley nativity are three llamas: Angel, Oreo and Bandit. “I know that they are not part of the traditional nativity scene, but they are wonderful animals with kids,” says Michelle.
While they attend mostly private events, Michelle and Mark do keep the zoo open year round, weather permitting. “We do have a policy that if we are home, we are open,” she says.
For most people, getting near the animals is the best part. “It’s not often that you can get up close with a camel and pet a camel,” she says.
It is these types of opportunities that keep visitors coming back. While for both families, the biggest obstacle is setup and takedown in the cold Wisconsin winters, the reactions they see from locals far outweigh the chilly nights.
“They are in amazement,” says Michelle.
“The smiles we bring to people (are my favorite),” says Jan. “That’s what we do in the community. We bring smiles.”
Keep an eye to the sky, and around the community, for the reindeer and nativity animals that bring the holiday season to life.
— By Jennifer Clausing