Raising reindeer

Nathan and Brienna Kleer smile with two reindeer.

Nathan Kleer (yellow jacket) and his wife, Brienna, are among the Kleer family members who help man the farm and manage the herd during the busy holiday season.

By far, the question Kevin and Debbie Kleer hear most this time of year is, “Can reindeer really fly?”

The Kleers run Kleerview Farm near Bellville, Ohio, in southern Richland County, and kids are there with their parents mostly to pick out a Christmas tree and see Santa. The real attraction, however, is the Kleers’ small herd of nine live reindeer — Blitzen, Noel, Belle, Nicholas, Crystal, Jingles, Clarice, Felice, and Cherry — which obviously prompts lots of questions, from both kids and adults.

“The adults want to know what our reindeer really are,” Debbie says. “It seems many people just don’t realize there is such a thing as a reindeer. They’re not fictional animals.”

Reindeer are domesticated caribou, members of the deer family. Females weigh from 250 to 350 pounds, males 350 to 500 pounds; they are formidable animals. Reindeer grow and shed a set of antlers annually and, like caribou, both males and females sport antlers.

“The male antlers are usually far larger,” Kevin says. “They’re about twice the size of female antlers, and a pair can weigh as much as 30 pounds or more.”

Always the entrepreneurs, the Kleers have been growing and selling Christmas trees on their cattle farm for more than 35 years. They got the idea to incorporate live reindeer only about five years ago. “We were looking for a way to add interest and attract more customers,” Debbie says. “We wanted to offer something no other Christmas tree farm had, and it worked. Our sales have increased 44 percent.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Young reindeer are susceptible to many diseases and parasites, and the survival of calves is only about 20 percent. Veterinarians don’t yet know the reasons behind the low survival rate, but according to the Kleers, the problem is being studied both at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and at Iowa State University.

The Kleers have learned to beat the survival odds with their reindeer calves by taking them indoors to raise. “We allow them to be with their mothers for only about a day or two after they’re born before bringing them into the house and bottle feeding them every four hours around the clock,” Debbie says. “It’s a lot of hard work for several weeks, but it pays off. Our survival rate of calves is now 100 percent, and a bonus is that bottle-fed calves are easier to handle once they become adults, because they’re used to people.”

In addition to having reindeer on display at their Christmas tree farm, the Kleers also take their reindeer on the road, trailering them to parties and celebrations throughout Ohio during the holiday season. This year they’ll make about 30 separate appearances between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

During the hectic tree-selling season, when some 10,000 customers descend upon Kleerview Farm during a five-week period, family members come to help sell trees, hand out candy canes and hot chocolate, and wrangle reindeer. Helping are the Kleers’ son, Nathan, and his wife, Brienna; and Andrea Tingley, the Kleers’ daughter, and her husband, Dave. Both families are members of Consolidated Electric Cooperative.

So, can reindeer really fly? The Kleers have a standard answer for those kids who ask. “Only Santa’s reindeer can fly,” they tell them, “because he is the only one who has the magic glitter dust to sprinkle on them.”

W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor and a member of Consolidated Electric Cooperative. He can be reached by e-mail at whchipgross@gmail.com.