How to Befriend a Reindeer in Alaska

This reindeer totally wants to be your friend. (Photo: lilyrose/RooM the Agency/Corbis)

By Sherry Ott / Ott’s World

You know Daisy and Rufus and Jasper and Olive,
you know Rocky Cupcake and Buttercup,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all…

Drive Slow When Arriving at Running Reindeer Ranch

As I pulled into the driveway, two big balls of brown fur ran out in front of my car — I hit the brakes in a panic. I let out a sigh of relief, it would have been pretty bad if I had hit a reindeer as I entered the Running Reindeer Ranch!

Running Reindeer Ranch, located 20 minutes outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, is where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about reindeer. Open year around, visitors can go to the ranch/home to walk with a reindeer herd through the ranch property; a unique experience you once thought came only with a visit the North Pole.


Meet Rudy the Reindeer living far north in Fairbanks Alaska. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

I was here to go on a walk with reindeer through the boreal forest, I think I had been dreaming of this moment since I was eight years old and would beg my mother to take us to Bergner’s department store in Peoria to see the reindeer in the basement in December. They kept them inside the store in a little pen with hay bails. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, despite the smell. Now I look back on that experience as an adult and question what Bergner’s was thinking keeping animals in the store — but I digress.

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As reindeer roamed freely in the Running Reindeer Ranch yard and around the cars, the owner, Jane Atkinson, greeted us and started filling our heads with fascinating reindeer facts.


Reindeer roamed freely, grazing around the yard. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

Contrary to the movie Frozen, reindeer have no upper front teeth. They don’t bite. They also don’t kick. They are excellent swimmers, and they have hollow hair follicles that help them float. They make a clicking noise as they walk as tendons in their feet stretch across their foot bones (hence the song — up on the rooftop click, click, click). Their summer antlers are covered in velvet and are extremely sensitive. As the velvet sheds, they actually eat the velvet because there are great nutrients in it…ewww.

Ummm….TMI, Jane.

Want more reindeer facts? Check this out!

Reindeer as a Family Pet

It all started when Jane’s 12-year-old daughter, Robin, asked if she could have a horse. Allergies and other practical concerns led Jane to say no. Persistent Robin turned her attention to goats (Jane: absolutely not) or sheep (Jane: um, that would be “no,” again). Jane suggested considering an animal acclimated to the Alaskan interior. A drive by the University of Alaska Reindeer Research Project planted the seed which would germinate through two years of research and fund-raising. Finally, in October of 2007, Ruby and Moon were brought to Jane’s home and the Running Reindeer Ranch was created.

“They are actually great ‘pets’ — reindeer are domesticated,” Jane explained with a knowing smile. In fact they are so gentle Jane told us stories of animals coming in the house if they leave the door open. Or using them as a pillow as she reads a book outside.


Reindeer here will come into the house if the doors are left open. Ranch owner Jane Atkinson says they are gentle and almost like pets. (Photo: Sherry Ott)


Reindeer walking on the deck of Jane’s house, they are part of the family. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

Walking with Reindeer

Jane did introductions of all the reindeer with little notes about their personalities, and then told us how the walk would work. We would each get to lead the herd at some point, but basically we would walk and they would just follow us through the woods, sort of like a dog. Had I known this I wouldn’t have wasted all the time asking my parents for a puppy — I would have asked for a reindeer, they are much cooler.

“If we are in a situation where they all come running towards us — stand still. They will go around you, and they know where their antlers are,” Jane said. I was skeptical about standing still with these large creatures running toward me, but I figured it would be good practice for bear sightings too when you are supposed to stand your ground.

Oh Alaska, how I love you.

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Who’s the Boss?

The herd is ushered along from behind by the boss reindeer. “It takes two things to be a boss reindeer: One is a set of antlers and the other is an attitude,” Jane explains. Even though Ruby happens to be their smallest reindeer, she’s definitely the boss. What she lacks in size she makes up for in attitude and presence.


Ruby is the boss. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

This means that Ruby was put on a lead rope and we would be using her to ‘control’ the herd. Yet I question how much control we had in reality!

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Walking with Reindeer


Out for a walk with the herd. We lead from behind with Rudy. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

We slowly wandered through the beautiful boreal forest around Jane’s property, and the reindeer simply followed along grazing, it felt surreal — and so much better than the Bergner’s department store basement! We each took turns ushering Ruby along on the lead. She stayed in the back and seemed to keep everyone in line. If they got too far away from her you knew that shortly they would all come running…and this was your chance to have nerves of steel.

Cookies and…


Jane reads her favorite reindeer book over cookies and lemonade. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

And just like at Santa’s house, Jane served us cookies and lemonade (I visited in the summer, and milk isn’t quite as enticing as lemonade at that time of year). We sat and talked about reindeer, antlers, breeding, and personalities. Jane even read us a reindeer book. I felt as if I were eight all over again.

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