An Interview with a Reindeer


Rangifer tarandus

FN: What species do you represent?

Reindeer: Reindeer. We are in the deer family, Cervidae, which includes deer, elk, moose and wapiti. In North America we are called Caribou. Reindeer is from the Norse word “hreinn” for horned animal. Caribou comes from Native peoples “qalipu” converted to French which means “snow shoveler”, because we shovel snow to get at the reindeer moss to eat in the winter

My species has been around more than half a million years, originating in the early Pleistocene. Our ancestors were living alongside Woolly Mammoths and Saber-Toothed cats.

FN: How big are you? What would you say you weigh?

Reindeer: I weigh somewhere around 250 kilograms (551 pounds) while many in my family weigh from 60 to 320 kilograms (132 to 706 pounds). We range in length from about 130 to 220 centimeters (4 to 7 feet) long. My tail is probably about 150 millimeters (6 inches) long. Many of us have tails from around 70 to 200 millimeters (3 to 8 inches) long. We can carry as much as we weigh.

FN: Would you say you have a long life?

Reindeer: Not nearly as long as humans but fairly long. Our life span is about twelve to fifteen years.

FN: Where do you live?

Reindeer: My family and I live in western Alaska. I have wild relatives in Eurasia and North America, Greenland and on large northern islands. There are a few in Beringia in eastern Yakutia and the Anadyr highlands. On the Chukotka and Seward peninsulas my wild relatives are gone and is occupied by domesticated reindeer. We all live in tundra and boreal forest regions. We are near the North Pole along and near the arctic circle.

FN: What’s your home like?

Reindeer: It is very cold where we live. We live in the coldest habitats on Earth so the winters can be especially hard. Temperatures can reach 80 degrees below zero. We have ways or adaptations to help us cope from head to hoof.

Since food is scarce in the winter we lower our food intake and metabolic rate to get through the winter.

We have wide concave hooves so we can walk through the thick snow or the soft tundra ground in the summer without sinking. Our hooves also have sharp edges to provide the best possible traction on slippery ice. Our hooves are also good for digging in the snow to get to what food there is.

Even our noses help us. There is fur on our noses to keep them warm. Our noses even warm the air we breathe before it enters our lungs. We have 25 percent more capillaries carrying red, oxygen-rich blood in our nasal passages than humans. The increase in blood flow in our noses helps keep the surface warm. Researchers found this dense network of blood vessels in our noses is also essential for regulating our internal body temperature .

We have two coats: an undercoat of soft wool and a topcoat of hollow hairs that trap air for insulation and flotation when we cross icy rivers. We shed our winter coats in the summer so we have a thin cooler coat for the warmer weather.

We stay out in the tundras in the summer and stay on the forest edge in the winter. The trees help shelter us form the cold North winds. We also stay in and around the forested areas because there is less snow on the ground there because of the tree cover so it is easier to find food. Also, lichen is a very important part of our diet in the winter and we can find it growing on the sides of trees in the forest. We also have a good sense of smell so we can find lichen under the snow.

FN: What do you like to eat?

Reindeer: We are herbivores so we only eat vegetation. We eat reindeer moss or it is also called caribou moss or lichen (pronounce liken) as I mentioned. We’ll also eat grasses and sedges. We have to be adaptable because we live in such a harsh environment. It depends on the time of year as to what we will eat. In the spring we get to feed on succulent new vegetation like grasses, sedges, herbs, ferns, mosses, fungi, flowering plants, horsetails and the leaves of willows. That stuff is great! In winter we scrape at the snow with our antlers and hooves to find food such as lichen underneath and find it on the sides of trees. We mostly eat lichen in the winter because it is the only food available at that time and it is packed with energy necessary to get through the winter. Spring is the best. It’s a feast.

FN: Do you have a mate?

Reindeer: There are many females in my herd. We have our courtship rituals we practice each year in late September and October. I court the ladies then.

FN: I know you can tell males and females apart but what about for humans? Is it easy for humans to tell male and female reindeer or caribou apart?

Reindeer: It shouldn’t be too hard. In the summer we do not have antlers so we all look similar. We are all brown with white necks and white rumps. The males or bulls are larger than the cows. Like all deer, we do grow antlers in the fall, but unlike all other deer both males and females grow antlers. A bull’s antlers tend to be big and complex while a cow’s and young reindeer’s antlers are usually small and simple. A human can tell us apart easily in the winter when bulls drop their antlers and the females keep theirs. The antlers are good for brushing the snow aside to find moss or lichen underneath to eat. The ladies have that advantage. They have the antlers during their pregnancy and lose them after the calf is born in May. Now males, we only have antlers in the fall to impress the females and to fight off other suitors.

FN: What is your family and social life like?

Reindeer: We live in large groups or herds. We can number in the thousands.

We travel a lot. We travel the greatest distance of any other terrestrial mammal. We’ll travel more than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) in a year sometimes. The greatest traveling is in the spring and fall. In the spring the pregnant cows and yearlings travel to calving grounds. After 225 days of pregnancy the cows have their babies or calves in May. Each female will have only one calf. Because we are always moving looking for food the calves are able to walk within an hour of being born. In just a few days they can outrun a human. We can run as fast as 48 miles per hour when alarmed! Now that is pretty fast development compared to humans. Our speed is good for running form predators.

In mid-summer the mosquitoes get real bad and we’ll either head towards a windy coastal habitat or to old patches of snow to get relief from them.

By late August or early September it is time for all of us to head towards our winter range. We do not go to the same winter range every year. Again, this is to minimize overgrazing.

We have to keep moving so we do not eat all of the food or overgraze. If we do there won’t be anything left to eat next year. We also move around a lot because of the weather. We have to go where the food is and where we will best survive the weather.

FN: Do you have kids? Do they stay with you long?

Reindeer: Yes, I have some young. They live within the herd. They stay close to their mother for the first year. We all stay together, not close. We are a community of families that drift to different ranges. We stay in a loose herd, spread out. They go off on their own, some other part of the herd.

FN: How do you get around?

Reindeer: All that traveling is done walking. We do not have cars and trains like people. We don’t want them. We don’t need to get anywhere fast. We mostly drift across tundras while grazing. Our wide concave hooves make it easier on the soft ground.

FN: What would you say is your biggest concern?

Reindeer: Well, certainly every day we have to watch out for predators like grizzly bears, American Black Bears and wolves. They try to get our older and sick family members. We are all on watch in the spring when we have calves or babies. They are especially in danger of being attacked. We stay in large herds because it is safer. The more of us there are the more caribou/reindeer there are to watch out for these predators. They hunt us for food.

Even with watching out for predators and trying to find enough food to get us through the winter, I would say our biggest concern is hunting and losing our homes. I know there have been some groups of reindeer that have died off or been killed off. They are extinct now. We worry about that becoming our fate. The most dangerous and destructive predator we face is humans.

We are losing our homes to the domesticated reindeer. People let them graze on our land and there are so many of them that they eat all our food and there is nothing left for us or our children. Their numbers are greater than ours because they do not have to worry about predators like we do. People protect them. The people that raise and herd them even shoot us! They do not want us around because we eat the same food as their reindeer. People want it all for their domesticated herds so whenever they see one of us they shoot us! It is not the reindeers’ fault. It is their people that control them. They are greedy and are not willing to share our land. We were here first.

People also shoot us for hunting. It is not just the reindeer herders. Humans are a much harder predator to escape. With wolves and grizzlies we have a chance to outrun them or use our large numbers to protect our young. With humans it is different. We do not even see them coming. We just hear a loud “BANG” and the next thing we know one of us is dead on the ground or running with a bullet hole and blood, knowing they will not survive it. We cannot see or outrun your guns. We haven’t a chance.

Humans are tearing up our grazing fields. They run big tank-like vehicles that tear up the ground. That destroys our food and it leaves scars that still have not healed. Our food doesn’t grow where the trucks go.

People are tearing apart the land with gold mining and oil development too. They tear up such large areas it is becoming impossible to cross. Soon we won’t be able to migrate to our feeding grounds for each season. Where are we going to eat? How will we feed our families?

People keep causing tundra fires which destroy our food as well.

The lichen we depend on to get us through winter is becoming very scarce because of pollution.

It is hard enough to find food. If we have humans tearing it up, overgrazing it, and burning it what is left for us?

FN: You mentioned that some herds of reindeer or caribou are extinct now. Are reindeer in danger of extinction?

Reindeer: In some areas we are. In Europe, for example, there is only one herd of wild reindeer left in southern Norway. Reindeer have been exterminated in most of Europe since the 1600s. They are in danger of extinction. To make matters worse their lives and livelihood is threatened every day by building dams, mountain cabins, and these hydroelectric things spread all across their habitat. The construction is too much for them so they try to get away from it all until they are now confined in such a small area it is not enough to sustain them. They are crowded out of their own homes and forced to abandon their food source. They have lost 50 percent of their habitat in just 50 years!

They retreat dramatically from anywhere that lies within four kilometers (2.5 miles) of new roads, power lines, dams or cabins. They do not understand these roads and lines and are afraid to cross them. The 30,000 wild reindeer that are left in Europe (down from 60,000 in the 1960’s) are in small isolated groups. They need to be together in one big herd. They’ll lose their genetic diversity. There is safety in numbers and they no longer have that. Their habitat is shrinking so fast because of humans moving in that scientists believe the land left will only be able to support 15,000 reindeer by 2020.

Because they are forced into concentrations in small areas they are overgrazing. Food is scarce so the cows are not having children anymore.

Caribou are listed under the federal Endangered Species List in the United States. We are endangered except in Alaska, where I live. Canada and Russia have fairly healthy populations as well. Oil drilling and development are changing all that. I am concerned that my family will face the same threats of development and extinction that the European herds are facing now.

FN: Now that you have the opportunity to talk to people is there anything you would like to say to them?

Reindeer: Yes. My family and our ancestors have been on this Earth a long time. We made it through the great Ice Age. We have endured and continue to endure harsh seasons, sickness, food scarcity and predation. Life can be hard enough in the wild. We have families to raise and elders to protect. We eat and travel together. I would like to ask humans why they cannot share the Earth? Our numbers have plummeted by 60% in just the last 30 years because of habitat loss and now Climate Change. If you continue to tear up our land, destroy our habitats and food, shoot us, and pollute our air and water, where are we going to live and raise our young? What are we going to eat if all the vegetation is either gone or so polluted it is inedible? Right now, what bit of land we are given in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, people are trying to drill there for oil. This is what is happening to the European herd, and now us. We have families just like people. How can we care for them if humans keep taking our vital resources away? We pose no threat to humans so why destroy us?

Now with Climate Change. I don’t understand it. Humans have known for decades that they were changing the Earth and not for the better. Yet they did nothing to stop it. Humans say the are the most intelligent species on Earth but destroy the only place they have to live in the universe. How smart is that? Who destroys their only home and pollutes their water and food? Who does that?

FN: I want to thank you for talking with us. This is a great opportunity for the humans to understand your species better and the trials and triumphs you and your family face. On behalf of Forgotten Nations, thank you so much.

Reindeer: Thank you. It was my pleasure to share a bit about my family with everyone.

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