By Matt Rocheleau, Globe Correspondent
A female reindeer who enchanted vistors at the Stone Zoo in Stoneham has died from what officials believe to be a rare disease passed by ticks.
Noelle, who died Wednesday at age 1 1/2, was one of two baby reindeer from a Minnesota reindeer farm that arrived last year about a week before Thanksgiving at the zoo, which is part of Zoo New England. She, along with her arriving male companion Cornelius, was named by zoo guests and Boston.com readers during the 2009 holiday season.
The duo became the first new reindeer at the zoo in 12 years.
“She, in particular, was really a very sweet animal,” John Linehan, Zoo New England president and CEO, said this evening by phone. “We could take her out and have her interact with the public in a safe way.”
After shedding her first set of 14-inch-long antlers last winter, Noelle’s second set of headgear had grown to an impressive size -- nearly 3-feet long, he said. Despite her young age, Noelle was considered to be an adult and in the prime of her life.
Linehan said Noelle’s death was “very sudden” and a “devastating loss” for the zoo and its visitors, who would often get a chance to pet, take pictures with and feed Noelle, who was “calmer and gentler” around people than most reindeer.
In a statement earlier today, he described how Noelle “delighted our many visitors throughout the year and particularly during ZooLights, our annual holiday light show.”
The zoo’s veterinary staff believes Noelle had a protozoal blood parasite rare to the area called babesia odocoilei, which is passed by ticks, though further laboratory tests are needed to confirm. The disease can remain dormant in an animal and undetectable in blood tests, the zoo said.
Once symptoms begin to show, the disease’s progression is often too rapid for even immediate treatment to reverse the process.
Noelle was lethargic and lying down Wednesday morning, which alerted zoo staff to have her examined, Linehan said. Veterinarian Susan Bartlett, who had studied and published a paper on the particular parasitic disease, quickly recognized Noelle’s symptoms and began treatment, but Noelle succumbed to the illness by early evening Wednesday.
“This reindeer’s decline was so precipitous that even appropriate immediate treatments could not reverse the process,” Eric Baitchman, the zoo’s veterinary services director, said in the statement. “There was no better veterinarian this animal could have had than Dr. Bartlett.”
The zoo’s staff will closely monitor its remaining two reindeer, Cornelius and female 13-year-old Linnae, who have each been given preventative treatment. The disease suspected to have killed Noelle is not a risk to humans.
“I’ve been at the zoo almost 30 years, and I don’t think we’ve ever had another animal have this,” illness, Linehan said.
Reindeer are one of 36 species of deer in the world and the only deer
family species where both males and females have antlers, which are shed and re-grown each year, the zoo said.
The herbivores are native to the arctic tundra, as well as boreal forests in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They have been domesticated in Scandinavia for thousands of years.
E-mail Matt Rocheleau at firstname.lastname@example.org.