Imagination, antlers put them on a rooftop
STONEHAM - The little girl in a pink parka rushed up to the fence and could barely contain her excitement. “Mommy, she flies,’’ she exclaimed, pointing at the reindeer just a few feet away. “She flies!’’
The elderly Linnae, the last of three reindeer who came to the Stone Zoo in 1997, barely looked up from the pile of hay she was methodically devouring. A dignified animal with impressive antlers, she seemed content to simply mosey from the hay to a few clumps of grass that had withstood the overnight frost. It takes the imagination of a child to imagine her soaring through the sky, much less pulling a sleigh loaded down with presents.
Visitors following the zoo’s Yukon Creek trail past a bald eagle, the black bears Smoky and Bubba, a beaver pond, a logger’s cabin, a North American porcupine, a gray fox, and a somnolent big-footed Canada lynx end at Linnae’s enclosure. Although reindeer are native to the Arctic tundra and the boreal forests of the Scandinavian countries and Russia, Linnae seems right at home in the piney, woodsy landscape of New England.
And soon she’ll have company. In October, two young reindeer arrived by truck from a farm in Minnesota. The 7-month-old female weighs 130 pounds, while the 8-month-old male is about 170 pounds. Both already sport their first set of antlers, although the male recently shed his left prongs. In the spring, after all three have shed their antlers, zookeepers will make the introductions, and the newcomers will settle into a separate space within the reindeer exhibit.
In the meantime, zookeepers are slowly introducing their new charges to the public. On a recent Sunday, two keepers seemed like proud parents as they led the reindeer around and encouraged awestruck toddlers to pose for photos. Some of the braver kids even held a container of food while the reindeer munched away. “We hope that by next year people will be able to pet them,’’ said senior keeper Dayle Sullivan-Taylor .
The reindeer are still getting used to their new environment - and they are just exuberant kids themselves, after all. “When you see them leap, they really look like they are about to take off,’’ Sullivan-Taylor said. “You can see how people came up with the idea that reindeer can fly.’’
The zoo tries to build on that sense of holiday magic with its annual ZooLights installation open evenings 5-9 p.m. through Dec. 30. The paths of Yukon Creek are illuminated with sparkling lights, and Santa’s Castle opens for the season so that children can pose for photos with the fat man in the red suit. The brightly lighted holiday exhibit area also features fairy tale characters and animated plush animals.
But the two reindeer, who will also be available for photo ops for a suggested donation, will almost certainly steal the show. All they need are names. Visitors can make their suggestions for the naming contest (try something beyond Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen) and the two new monikers will be drawn by Santa on Dec. 23. In addition to naming rights, the winners get a one-year family membership to Zoo New England.
In the meantime, knowledgeable zookeepers will explain that reindeer like to eat leaves, bark, moss, and lichen and that of all the 36 known species of deer, reindeer are the only ones where both males and females have antlers. Those antlers are shed every spring and regrow over the summer, pushing up from their base like a tree. The reindeer are right at home with New England winters, relying on two thick coats of fur to keep warm and using their sure-footed, two-toed hooves to maneuver over ice and snow.
But what about the most important question?
“I’ve never seen reindeer fly,’’ said Sullivan-Taylor. “But I’ve heard stories.’’
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.