Norwegian roots run deep at Jessen Reindeer Ranch
Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer,and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner! On, Blitzen…
Oh, you know the rest. But, where’s Rudolph?
Around Christmas, when such busy creatures are touted as flying sleigh pullers, Rudolph and his gang just might be found at Jessen Reindeer Ranch in Loveland, Colo., relaxing for the year’s one-night monumental trip. But ranches are mostly known for cattle. How did Santa’s famous species come to occupy one? The long, interesting story begins a long, interesting time ago in the faraway countries of Norway and Mongolia.
Chris Jessen, who with his wife Pam owns the reindeer ranch, has some deep roots planted in Norway. His mother is 80 percent Norwegian, his dad 50 percent. Although Chris was born and raised in Loveland, he grew up learning about his northern European heritage. The family hung Norwegian flags on their Christmas trees and gobbled up delicious Norwegian foods over the holiday.
Early-on, Jessen also learned about the Sami tribe, the official reindeer herders of Norway. Native to the northern part of the country, that nomadic people and their culture spilled over into Sweden and Finland as well.
The Tsatan tribe of Mongolia raise reindeer mostly for milk and its by-products. Its fat content is substantially higher and more nutritious than that of dairy cows, Jessen said.
The ethnic group follows their reindeer as do herders of free-range cattle. Domesticated for thousands of years, their reindeer roam across separate winter and spring/summer pastures.
One primary difference determines the usage of the animals: the Tsatan ride their reindeer whereas the Sami employ theirs to pull Santa-like sleighs. The two tribes’ famed animals also go by particular nicknames — the Samis’ are called the Beef Cattle of the Arctic; the Tsatans’ are known as the Dairy Cattle of Mongolia.
The next cloven-hooved step reindeer took toward Colorado, said Jessen, involved whalers who became part of the Alaskan gold rush. In their ongoing efforts to procure bountiful whale meat for sale to hungry miners (as well as whale oil for lamps and ambergris for perfumes) they all but exterminated whales, an important protein source of native Alaskan peoples. No whales, no food or by-products that those hardy populations depended upon to sustain their lives and lifestyles.
The U.S. government sought to resolve the potential tragedy by importing reindeer from Siberia, Norway and Finland. Those four-legged whale replacements worked out quite well. In fact, Eskimos still utilize them, including as a food source.
Reindeer and caribou are one and the same animal species, of which there are 14 distinct sub-species. Caribou are typically larger, while the smaller reindeer are all considered domesticated, regardless of ownership or useage.
Reindeer coloration is quite amazing. Commonly brown and short in summer, their coats lengthen and turn white with grey over the winter months. The white hairs are hollow to provide insulation and, most likely, camouflage from predators. As do horses and other animals, reindeer shed in the spring.
Size is determined by weight rather than height. The babies enter the world at a svelte 10-25 pounds. Adult females weigh in at 200-300 pounds; males tip the “reindeer scales” at between 300-600, Jessen said.
Reindeer gestation of generally seven to eight months long can be a rather inexact science, he further noted. Females can slow the process down or speed it up as required for herd safety and size. They are one of the few animal species that can do this, Jessen added. When one herd member gives birth, the rest of the pregnant females will sometimes (but not always) do likewise immediately.
Once the species reached the U.S., it was only a matter of time before a few were relocated from Alaska down to the main 48 states. Even now, numbers are small, mostly kept as pets and holiday display animals. Jessen estimated a current count of U.S. owners at about 50 individuals; approximately only six are in Colorado.
Jessen’s fascination with reindeer began in childhood. About four years ago, when he got out of the mini cow business he’d had for years, he invested that herd’s dispersal earnings in reindeer, initially seven animals. Jessen Reindeer Ranch currently owns 10 head. Seems like a lot? Keep in mind that ninth century King Ottar of Norway claimed to have a herd of 600.
Ten or 600, reindeer are very cool, unique animals.
“They are.” Chris Jessen enthusiastically confirmed. “We really like them.”
And so they breed them for others to purchase and enjoy.
Cost rules out use as commercially U.S. grown meat animals or large hobby herds. One animal can cost between $8,000-$20,000 or even as high as $45,000-$50,000, Jessen said. A new owner must also invest in proper fencing and purchase a minimum of two at once because reindeer do not do well solo. They are very social creatures that develop close bonds. If two are separated by death, for example, the lone survivor’s health rapidly declines.
Just as he absorbed Norwegian culture as a child, Chris and Pam Jessen’s children are growing up well-aware of their Scandinavian heritage through working with the reindeer. Generally known as chores, that popular rural activity is not a forced march but rather a means by which to earn extra spending money, Jessen said.
So 8-year-old son Bodhi and daughter, 10-year-old Maddi, help their parents with halter training the babies and at display events. The children also feed, water, and clean stalls for the reindeer plus for the other Jessen critters: mini donks, chickens, two Bactrian camels, and the typical pet cats and dogs.
Jessen’s commercial holiday displays include two reindeer loose in a 12 X 12 pen; not harnessed nor pulling sleighs. But even an unrestrained Rudolph (or Rudolphina) captures hearts, especially at Christmastime.
FUN REINDEER FACTS
As provided by Jessen Reindeer Ranch:
- Reindeer legs make a clicking sound that experts say helps keep a herd together in snowstorms and foggy weather.
- Reindeer have hair on their noses, which makes them the only deer with hair from nose to hooves.
- Excitable, hungry baby reindeer sound like honking geese.
- Two coat layers — a wooly undercoat and guard hairs — keep reindeer warm.
- Both males and females grow, and shed, antlers. The cows shed theirs in April or May, after that year’s babies are born; bulls drop their antlers in December.
- Besides hay, reindeer eat other grasses; shoots and leaves of shrubs and trees; mosses; ferns; and herbs.
Jessen Reindeer Ranch is not open to the public. Rental reservations must be made by phone. Call Pam at (970) 214-3595 for events and reservations. Chris handles general reindeer or breeding information at (970) 566-1839. Email is at email@example.com .
No additional 2022 reindeer rentals are available from Jessen Ranch. Book soon for 2023. But to meet and greet Santa’s fabled hooved helpers, interested visitors this year can stop by one of the following events:
City of Loveland — At the one-night downtown lighting ceremony. Call or visit the city’s website for date and time of the event.
Johnstown Jingle — Sunday, Dec. 4, 2-5 p.m. For more info, visit Facebook at Visit Downtown Johnstown.
Town of Timnath Lighting Event — Dec. 2, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. happens along Main Street.
Bath Nursery, Fort Collins — Nov. 26, Dec. 3, Dec. 10. Event is free but limited space and online pre-registration is required. Fifteen minute time slots will be assigned to those who are selected.
Winter Wonderlights at Chapunga Sculpture Park at Centerra, I-25 and Hwy. 34 — Nov. 19 and Dec. 10, 5-7 p.m. For more information, go to visitlovelandco.org/winterwonderlights.