(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 3, 2016)
Clare, MI – Baby reindeer are always born at dawn. When that happens Dave Aldrich is in the pen with the mother, soothing her with a voice that’s she has heard since her own birth. When the baby comes, the mother reindeer licks it clean. Then Aldrich, sitting cross-legged on the ground, takes it in his lap. He pets its slimy fur, gently touches its nose, strokes its ears and massages its hooves, letting the fawn know that the smell and feel of a human is just as safe as its mother’s love. He sits with them for hours. He is like their family.
This bond is both for compassion and for business. Aldrich owns Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm near Clare, just a couple hours north of Metro Detroit. It’s one of only a few reindeer farms in the state, mainly because of the stringent regulations and the level of care that reindeer need compared to other animals one might want to raise.
If you see reindeer at holiday-themed events in the Detroit area or the Grand Rapids area – including Greenfield Village, Frederick Meijer Gardens and events though Oakland County – chances are they from Rooftop Landing.
It was just over 25 years ago that Aldrich got his first pair of reindeer. He had retired fairly young from a business that organized restaurant and grocery store equipment auctions in Lansing. Though he did well in the city, his heart was up north with the woods and the wildlife. He began keeping exotic deer and horses as pets, and when two reindeer from Alaska became available, he happily gave them a good home.
Particularly at Christmas time, people loved to see the reindeer, and the hobby evolved into a business. Now there are 15 deer along with a menagerie of creatures that includes alpaca, a long-haired brown cow, and a pair of wallabies (with babies in their pouches). In addition to doing over 200 events each season, Aldrich and his family open up Rooftop Landing on the weekends for families to enjoy. A $2 admission fee helps cover the cost of insurance. Santa is there to pose for pictures. There is a gift shop, pictures with Santa, a playground Elf House, donuts from the famous Cops and Donuts Shop, and other fun things for the kids to enjoy.
But it’s really taking the reindeer on the road that helps to pay the bills. “They do pay for themselves. There aren’t many reindeer in the United States, and there is a demand. I had to turn down over 200 requests this year. Most of the guys who have reindeer have just a couple, on a Christmas tree farm or something like that. There’s just not that many that can do the kind of events that we do.”
For about five weeks out of the year the deer go out in teams of two to delight children who often don’t have the chance to see animals up close. “You’ve got kids down in Detroit where maybe they get to go take a trip to the zoo. This gives them an up close experience with an animal that I think every kid should get to have,” he said.
“When I was a child, I had good Christmases. Not every kid gets that memory. I don’t remember the gifts I got. But I do remember going downtown and looking in the store windows, at all the decorations, and all the different Christmas cookies that my grandma used to make. I like to see kids having good memories. There’s so much bad in the world. Kids should have time to be kids and have the Christmas spirit.”
To do such a concentrated run of holiday events, one must enjoy the smiles and simple questions that children ask. “We answer questions and try to teach the kids things they may not know about the reindeer,” Aldrich said.
For example many people don’t know that reindeer and elk are the only animals where males and females grow antlers. Or that reindeer do not have top teeth, because in their native lands they mainly eat lichen which is soft. Or that their antlers shed every year.
Often he gets asked in reindeer can really fly. “Only for Santa Claus,” he tells them.
In general he prefers to talk about reindeer facts over lore, and hopes that by seeing animals up close kids will be inspired to be more compassionate and curious. One section of the Rooftop Landing wall has posters with facts about the animals, including the story of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986 which had many devastating effects on what was then the Soviet Union, including causing sterility and death for large reindeer herds. Along the fence to the outdoor pen there are metal signs with information, and an area where large shedded antlers are on display.
Aldrich’s love of animals extends beyond his business and the sharing of facts. Though training and caring for the reindeer are a year-round chore, he spends his free time writing letters to judges and prosecutors when he hears of animal abuse cases. He looks for stories of abuse and urges stiffer penalties. “We take a lot of pride in how we care for the animals, he said. In 25 years of business I’ve not had any violations. And as anyone who owns any kind of business where there’s regulations knows, it’s really hard not to ever get one.
‘But you hear these stories, they’re heart breaking. People have animals and they torture them. Maybe there’s a horse that isn’t being fed. Or there’s dog fighting. Or other abuse. I’ve seen people go to court multiple times and just get a slap on the wrist. There are laws that can put people in jail for animal abuse, and these judges need to do that.”
He’s also been an advocate in the reindeer community for best practices, appreciating the need for regulation and for encouraging reindeer breeders not to sell to big game businesses.
“There are these hunting preserves, a lot of them in Texas, where people will pay to shoot a trophy animal. To me that’s not hunting. That’s just not right. So those of us that breed reindeer, we all know each other, we have an unofficial kind of agreement not to sell to those places. They’ll pay big money too, but it’s just not worth it. These are intelligent, sweet animals and it’s our job to care for them, not send them off so some rich guy can shoot them.”
For Aldrich, the reindeer are part of his family. Each one has a name, though he says after having over 100 deer in his care over the years it gets tough to think of festive names without duplicating them. Most recently a young buck was born the same week that the musician Prince died. Prince the reindeer – still small and with only short spikes for antlers – dons a purple halter and is led by a purple rein.
There have been times when people at events have questioned the treatment of the reindeer.
In the tundra they roam in herds of thousands, across frozen plains of snow and ice with little vegetation and few fellow creatures. In their homelands they are killed for meat, used for milk, or bred to be put to work. In America they are cared for like pets and shared with the public for show.
“Reindeer have been domesticated for as long as horses have been. They are very social animals, very easy to train. They like being around people and being part of a family. They’re not wild animals. When we go to do events they are excited. They line up to get in the trailers, like when you tell a dog they’re going for a ride in the car, that’s how excited they get.”
“People say, why don’t you put some hay down so they have something soft to lay on? If I did they would just kick it away. These animals are from the Laplands. They want to be as cold as possible. We humans like to be warm, so we’ll gravitate towards fire or anywhere warm. But the reindeer want to be as cold as possible. Being on the ground makes their bellies cold and that’s what they like. If the ground were a big block of ice that’s what they’d really want to lay on.”
As far as the people and the noise, the reindeer are trained year-round to be fearless and friendly. Police from Clair come by with their cars to blare the lights and sirens. Student groups come to give the deer practice being around kids. The family dogs and the other animals are part of their daily lives. They even get to hear fireworks courtesy of a firework development company that is close by, preparing them for holidays at Greenfield Village which include a fireworks show every night.
The most exciting day of training is when Aldrich hosts 100 Santas, many of whom come from the C. W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland. The internationally-acclaimed program is a three-day immersion in the life of the jolly old man with the red suit and fluffy white beard. At his own expense, Aldrich hosts the Santas for a catered dinner and a few hours of merriment and education.
“Even if they aren’t working at events that have reindeer, kids will ask questions. This is Santa you know. He should be able to see a reindeer, and feel comfortable talking to the kids about what they’re like.”
Though Aldrich has never wanted to be a Santa himself, he has great respect for the work they do.
“People don’t realize what it takes to be a Santa. It seems simple, kids sitting on your lap and telling you what they want for Christmas, smiling for pictures. But there is a lot more to it. That’s why certification is important,” he said.
Training teaches the merry mascot to handle a variety of situations. “I’m friends with a lot of Santas and I hear the stories. Parents that get unruly or families that fight. Maybe there is a divorce going on and the parents can’t get along for the Santa visit. Maybe it’s a situation like ‘Daddy didn’t make it home for Christmas,’ or something bad is happening at home or school,” Aldrich said. “Children trust Santa. They’ll tell Santa things they won’t tell mom or dad, or brother or sis. And there are some heartbreaking stories. A trained Santa knows how to help.”
Aldrich’s eyes watered up and a lump in his throat made him pause as he talked about a Santa trying to comfort a mother whose child wanted her in the picture with him. The woman was too embarrassed to be in the picture because her hair had fallen out from chemotherapy. “I know Santa was heartbroken, but he did the right things. He let her know that to a child, their mother is always beautiful, and those memories they last a lifetime.”
Aldrich and his team – which includes his son and grandson – thrive on the moments that touch their hearts. “I’ve been doing this 25 years so there are lots of memories,” he said. “Children really love animals, and watching them get excited is always the best part. But there are children with special needs, or maybe who are shy or nervous, and we try to let them know it’s okay so they feel safe. Sometimes if it’s not too hectic we’ll say ‘Do you want to help us take Holiday, or whatever the reindeer’s name is, back to the trailer?’ And we let them hold the rein and lead the reindeer back. To those kids that is just the neatest thing. They are on top of the world.”
The reindeer generally live 7-14 years. Bucks that are meant for breeding have the shortest lives. Aldrich said it’s because when it is mating season all they want to do is reproduce, so much so that they don’t even bother to eat. “They lose about a hundred pounds. When the rut is over, they gorge themselves to fatten up. That takes a toll on their bodies,” he said. He said that is nature’s way of making sure that young healthy deer move up and reproduce more.
Currently Rooftop Landing has two breeding bulls, one who will likely not be around much longer, and a young buck who will be ready to breed in the spring. The breeding bulls have their antlers removed so as not to harm the doe, and they are not taken on the road because they can be a little more aggressive. The other males are castrated, remaining gentle and less dominant than the female deer. When they die the reindeer are sent to Michigan State University to be tested for diseases.
Over 100 deer have been in Aldrich’s care over the 25 years, and he’s done over 2,000 events through the State. His reindeer have also been featured in advertisements and movies, including A Very Herold & Kumar 3d Christmas.
This holiday season the reindeer will make appearances at the Birmingham Winter Markt, Oxford’s holiday parade, lunch with Santa in Lathrup Village and the Ice Festival in Downtown Ferndale. Learn about area events at the oc115 Event page at http://oaklandcounty115.com/events/.
Learn more about Rooftop Landing, including their 24 live camera, at http://www.rooftopreindeer.com.