Let’s sleigh focused on reindeer welfare this festive season

21 December 2021
Let’s sleigh focused on reindeer welfare this festive season

** A tongue-in-cheek story to close out 2021 **  

While people are rightfully looking forward to a break after a tough year, let’s not forget the welfare of the hard-working reindeer this festive season, AgResearch experts say.

With expertise in both deer research and animal welfare and ethics, scientists from the crown research institute intend to keep a close eye on the heavy workload of the elite reindeer crew as their busy season looms.

“Consider for a moment the millions of stops at homes across the world, dodging aircraft and power lines, and having to land safely on rooftops, all without waking the children below. It’s a lot of demands and stresses on the animals over the course of a single night,” says AgResearch animal ethics and welfare expert, Dr Jim Webster.

“Remember also that the reindeer and their owner this year have the added complexity of having to operate within pandemic restrictions, including traffic light systems, vaccine passes and social distancing – just like everyone else.” 

“Fortunately, our past experience with this reindeer owner and his helpers is that they are generally proactive across their responsibilities when it comes to welfare of the animals. Nonetheless, ongoing welfare oversight by the experts is important - this way we will know whether the owner has been bad or good; so be good for goodness’ sake!”

Dr Webster is urging regular welfare checks, rest breaks and ready access to water for the reindeer.

“This group of reindeer tend to lean heavily on the lead animal with the red, shiny nose for navigation, but it is also important to regularly rotate the rest of the reindeer formation so that the workload is spread evenly.”   

AgResearch deer expert and researcher Jamie Ward says a major concern is the nutrition available to the reindeer on their busiest night.

"The risk is that high energy offerings left out for the reindeer owner could be eaten by the reindeer themselves, and this can wreak havoc on their digestive systems as they work," Jamie says.

The reindeer have come from a Northern Hemisphere winter, consuming a low energy winter diet and high energy food could cause acidosis.

"If people want to leave something out for the reindeer, our suggestion would be to leave some delicious lichen – it’s what they eat in the wild during winter."

The researchers have also become aware of the effects excess packaging can have on the load the reindeer have to pull, and the mess left afterwards.

Dr Webster says: “So please apply the three Rs of research, and `Replace, Reduce and Refine’ your wrapping and packaging to a minimum for the reindeer, and the environment”.