What do Hamburg and the North Pole have in common?
Updated: Mar 17
A herd of reindeer and plenty of holiday spirit — that’s what!
Mike Jablonski was hauling his trailer along the New York State Thruway toward Camp Good Days & Special Times when he heard a siren. He checked his mirror and noticed the flashing lights of a state trooper’s sedan, indicating he should pull over.
Jablonski braked and eased off the highway, coming to a full stop. He watched the uniformed officer approach.
“Is there a problem, sir?” Jablonski wondered.
“Someone called in a report of an animal in distress,” the trooper said. “I need to know what you’re carrying in the trailer. Are you kidnapping deer?”
Jablonski explained his cargo, then got out of his truck and walked around to open the rear door.
Inside were several reindeer, including a female who propped her front hooves on a hay bale, and stuck her head out the narrow window. There was food, water, and enough space for the deer to move about.
With his wife, Mindy, Jablonski owns Antler Ridge Farm in Hamburg, and the reindeer were part of their herd. He and the animals were en route to a show-and-tell demonstration.
“This is like their own little condo on wheels,” Jablonski said. “These deer love it in here.”
The trooper laughed. He had never seen anything like this.
“Well, I can tell there’s no distress,” he said. “These reindeer look pretty comfortable to me. Do you mind if I take some pictures so I can prove to my captain that all this was real?”
Jablonski, a South Buffalo native who has raised reindeer for more than 21 years, is accustomed to strange encounters. He maintains a large herd of reindeer, and has traveled up and down the East Coast with selected deer. The animals have marched in parades, appeared in Geico commercials and Hallmark movies. They have even been featured in live shots on the Today Show outside Rockefeller Center in New York City. Jablonski and his handlers have walked leashed reindeer up 52nd Street, while urban onlookers have stepped aside, amazed by what they see.
Today, Jablonski is in his mid 50s and serves as president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA), an international organization with more than 130 members across the globe. But in the 1990s, when he first considered raising reindeer, it was difficult to find anyone who would even sell him an animal.
A chance meeting
Jablonski owned Village Green Landscape, a nursery and garden center. As part of that business, he sold seasonal Christmas trees, and became interested in acquiring reindeer more than two decades ago.
“We had been looking for a larger animal, since we lived on a farm,” Mindy explained. “I was looking into llamas. But because we sold Christmas trees, Mike suggested reindeer. Then he told me how much they cost, and I said, ‘No way!’ I thought he was crazy.”
Reindeer prices have fluctuated based on supply and demand, with females being more valuable than males. At the time, purchasing a female reindeer cost approximately $5000 — assuming Jablonski could find a seller. He learned about ROBA, then a group of approximately 30 people, who were meeting in Gloversville, N.Y.
“I joined the association, but at the meeting, I couldn’t find anybody to tell me where or how to get reindeer,” Jablonski recalled. “The reindeer people are very protective of their animals. They don’t want to sell to somebody unless they know them. I’ve learned over the last 20 years that there’s a lot of work involved, and you really have to love your animals. They also didn’t want to sell to someone who thinks he’s going to become a millionaire from raising reindeer, because it isn’t going to happen.”
Frustrated that he was unable to get answers, Jablonski left the meeting and ordered dinner at a restaurant, where a man approached. He promised that he could connect Jablonski to a pair of reindeer.
“You let me know. When you have them, call me and I’ll buy them,” Jablonski said skeptically, providing his phone number. “But I’m thinking, I tried everybody already. Nobody had any reindeer available. This guy was just some friend of somebody in the association. I didn’t put much stock in it. About a week before Thanksgiving in 1999, I got a call that he was bringing them to me. We hustled to get a pen built.”
By then, Mindy had reluctantly agreed that her husband should invest in a reindeer.
“You can’t get just one,” Jablonski told her. “You’ve got to get two.”
On Thanksgiving Day, two female reindeer arrived in Hamburg.
“I was handed the lead rope for a deer we named Star,” Mindy recalled. “She stood there and looked at us, and I fell in love instantly. When you can stand next to a large animal with antlers, and they don’t try to kill you or jump away, that’s what hooked me. I turned to my husband and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
That was the starting point for what has grown into one of the five largest herds in the United States, populated by more than 50 reindeer. Separated into several fenced-in areas, the herd is visible from Lakeview Road, not far from soccer fields and an ice rink on the old Nike base.
Approximately once each week, a team of veterinarians from Attica Veterinary Associates, led by Dr. Andrew Dann and Dr. Noah Seward, travel to Antler Ridge Farm to run fecal tests, search for parasites, and adjust nutrition levels. The goal is to keep a healthy herd.
“Reindeer have been domesticated for 1000 years,” Jablonski explained. “They descended from caribous, but now they’re different genetically. They’ve been domesticated longer than the cow has. Whitetail deer around here have diseases that a reindeer can catch. You’re always looking to prevent that, because whitetails can survive, but it’s fatal to reindeer. If you come to my pen, all my fence lines are sprayed and we keep our grass mowed. I feed my reindeer garlic, which is a deterrent to ticks. We try to keep things tidy so a tick doesn’t have anything to feed on.”
Antler Ridge Farm is not a walk-up destination. While reindeer are friendly, both males and females have powerful antlers. Like most animals, they may be uncomfortable around unfamiliar people.
“In that respect, they’re like a dog,” Jablonski explained. “Your dog knows you, but he’s not going to go up to strangers. Once reindeer know their handlers, they bond. If you call their name, most of the time they’ll come.”
Occasionally, the Jablonskis have taken reindeer calves into their home and raised them on a bottle, if the animal is struggling or appears to be rejected by its mother. Typically between 10-15 pounds at birth, the calves are initially fed every four hours, before being weaned back.
“We set up a pen in a dining room we don’t use very often,” Mindy said. “It has hardwood floors, so we put down a tarp and use a folded up comforter. Reindeer are funny in that they usually go to the bathroom at the same time they eat and drink, so it’s kind of easy to clean because you know when they’ll do it. We take them outside. Like any animal, they get into a routine.”
Besides family members, several people help care for the herd. Tom Hammond has worked as a “reindeer wrangler” alongside Jablonski for nearly 20 years.
“They are an amazing animal,” Hammond said. “They’re built for 40 degrees below zero. Their fur is like a small tube that insulates. Sometimes in winter, you go out in the field and all you see is a mound of snow with antlers sticking out. They’re buried under a layer of snow and they’re happy as hell.”
Hammond, 60, is a lifelong Hamburg resident. By day, he works as a certified public accountant, and befriended Jablonski years ago when Jablonski worked as a landscaper on property owned by Hammond’s father.
“I showed an interest in the animals,” Hammond said. “As we became friends, he invited me in and I learned about reindeer tendencies. I did a lot of reading. I take the role very seriously.”
Hammond helps with public displays of the reindeer. The busiest time is around the holidays, when up to 60 public events might be scheduled, including parades or holiday displays. Hammond is an animal lover who considers his role to serve as Jablonski’s backup.
“I keep an eye out to make sure that the reindeer and the people around them stay safe,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know how to handle or be around animals that size. Those bulls can get really big. I’m very cautious, and most times I get more skittish than the reindeer do.”
Hammond recalled an event in Jamestown where he needed to walk a leashed reindeer down a crowded street on a busy night. He was nervous, worried a child might pat the animal from behind, and then the deer would rear up. Reindeer, Hammond explained, kick forward. But there were no problems.
“I want to be sure the reindeer aren’t hurt, and that they don’t hurt anybody. Knock on wood, I’ve never had an incident like that. Mike is very cautious about the animals he’ll put on display. They’ve got to know people and be socialized. And I appreciate that. Part of my job is to constantly evaluate risk. I wouldn’t be working with him this long if he wasn’t careful.”
Yes, they’re real
“I’m not trying to be cocky, but I have a really good reputation,” Jablonski said. “I take care of my animals.”
His reindeer live for an average of 12 to 14 years, and some have lived as long as 18. Reindeer on the tundra live only five or six years, Jablonski said. In Russia and several Scandinavian countries, reindeer are used for milk, food, and pulling heavy objects on a sled.
“The first question I always get is, are these real?” Jablonski said. “People think they’re a mythical animal that were created to be in a Christmas story.”
Among the herd, they always keep reindeer with famous names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen. And of course, the most famous reindeer of all.
“When kids see a live reindeer for the first time, they’re in awe, as you can imagine,” Mindy said. “But so are the adults.”
Reindeer are comfortable in the cold. Global warming has affected their genetic makeup, and the local herd is participating in research to help track that.
“I work with the University of Alaska, which has a program that’s doing studies about how reindeer have adapted to weather conditions,” Jablonski said. “Reindeer are a transitional species that are adapting quickly due to climate change.”
Over the years, activists have suggested that Jablonski should not keep the animals in a pen. Instead, they should be set free to roam. Jablonski has a simple response.
“If I let these reindeer loose, they’d be dead in about a month, because they wouldn’t know what to do. It’s like letting a cow loose. What would it do? The analogy I use is that your dog is not a wolf. Reindeer don’t migrate. They have to be forced to move from place to place. Their gestation period and breeding are very different from wild caribou.”
In a normal year, the holidays are a busy season for Antler Ridge Farm. They display animals at community events all over Western New York — the Town of Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, Springville, Grand Island — in addition to Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Cincinnati Zoo, and events on Long Island. In 2020, most of those outings have been cancelled as people stay home during the pandemic.
That hasn’t dampened an optimistic outlook for Hammond, the reindeer wrangler. He speaks about the animals with affection and tenderness.
“I’ve relished the opportunity to work with reindeer ever since I first had it,” Hammond reflected. “It’s disappointing we won’t be taking the reindeer out this year. In a normal season, I’d be out with them every weekend. But the pandemic is not going to last forever. This is a year to appreciate what we have, and we’ll be back next year and things will be even better.”
© 2020 by Jeff Schober
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