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12-13-02: Botkins couple enjoys raising herd of reindeer
The Daily Standard

    BOTKINS - Rudy peers out the barn door as a car pulls into the driveway. He heads outside to get a better look at the latest influx of visitors. The rest of the herd follows suit, knowing they will be rewarded with shelled corn not to mention plenty of attention.
     The leader of the pack checks out the boys - Jingles and Rebel - before casting a long look at the girls - Holly, Prancer, Dancer, Donner, Blitzen, Vixen and Cupid. Contented that everything is fine at Rickert Reindeer Farm, 15721 Hardin-Wapakoneta Road, he saunters toward some blades of grass poking through the slush.
     The four-legged creatures, kin to Santa's fabled helpers, get plenty of attention in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The farm is a popular field trip destination for school children in Auglaize, Mercer and Shelby counties. Adults also stop by with young children or grandchildren in tow.
    Mary Rickert, dressed like Mrs. Claus, deftly fields questions from the wide-eyed youngsters with assistance from her husband, Gene. "Have you seen reindeer fly?" tops the list of most popular inquiries, followed by "Where's Rudolph?" and "Are these REAL reindeer?"
    In a grandmotherly tone, she explains that Rudolph and his buddies are helping Santa Claus with last-minute chores at the North Pole. The "real" reindeer here at the farm serve as replacements in the event a member of Santa's official team gets sick or grows weary while pulling the heavily laden sleigh through the nighttime sky.
    "It takes Santa's special brand of magic to make reindeer fly and to make Rudolph's nose glow bright red on Christmas Eve," she adds. "Oh my, kids ask lots of questions and expect you to have all the answers."
    Rudy, who sports just one antler these days, is a popular topic. Children seem relieved to learn he will not spend the remainder of his years in lopsided fashion. Shedding antlers is part of an annual ritual. The clicking sound made by reindeer as they walk is another area of concern. Much like a honing device, the sound made by leg tendons helps reindeer find each other in the wild.
    The Rickerts, who once raised cattle and hogs on the Shelby County farm, became interested in reindeer in the 1990s while visiting a nephew in Alaska.
    "I wanted to bring in reindeer at the time, but they were hard to come by," he says. "My dream finally came true six to seven years ago."
    They purchased Rudy as a baby and later provided him with two girlfriends. Today the herd numbers 10 thanks to additional purchases and breeding.
    "It's been a real learning process," Gene Rickert admits with a smile. "And we're still learning!"
    The couple initially obtained information on raising reindeer from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. However, they quickly learned many of the guidelines did not apply since the animals live better here than on the frozen tundra. They seem perfectly content munching hay and specially formulated feed pellets instead of a diet rich in lichen. Shelled corn is their candy.
    Success has been tempered with failure. The Rickerts lost a pair of 6-month calves to internal parasites after following university guidelines regarding worming. The process now takes place at the age of six weeks instead of after weaning. They also lost two reindeer born prematurely. Bottle-feeding, blood transfusions and even potent doses of tender, loving care failed to save the babies.
    "Other reindeer people warned us about the eventual outcome," he says. "I had high hopes for one little fellow, but he only lasted 14 days."
    Holly represents one of the success stories. A veterinarian used generous amounts of liquid soap to ease the long-legged fraulein into the world, effectively removing all traces of natural scent. The new mother would have nothing to do with the strange-smelling offspring. Gene Rickert became a surrogate mother, bottling the baby at three-hour intervals around the clock. She now follows him like an overgrown puppy.
    Reindeer are more delicate than they appear. Stress and heat can take a toll if owners are not careful. Males in the wild have a life expectancy of about four years, with many of them dying of heart attacks during the rut. Females tend to be more laid back, living 10 to 12 years. Animals typically live longer in captivity.
    These cold days are ideal for the breed that originated near the Arctic Circle.  Reindeer at the Rickert farm love to play in the snow and ice, seldom slipping thanks to their big hooves. Their incredibly soft coats contain hollow hair follicles that serve as natural insulation against rain and sub-zero temperatures. They prefer the confines of the barn during hot, humid summer days. However, each successive generation will become more acclimated to life here in the Midwest.
    "These fellas like people and especially children," Gene Rickert says. "I've been noticing they head out to the field along the road about 10 minutes after seven each morning. The school bus goes by at 7:13 with  lots of little noses pressed up against the windows."
    Rudy rules the roost. Jingles and Rebel, the younger bulls,   maintain a respectable distance. Jingles occasionally peers over the fence to make sure he isn't missing something. One snort from the patriarch serves as a warning to get lost.
    The reindeer have appeared at area parades, holiday lighting ceremonies and even live Nativity scenes, developing a following that includes old and young alike.
    "It isn't only the kids who wonder if the reindeer are real," Gene Rickert says. "Some adults believe reindeer are part of the whole Santa Claus myth."
    He recalls a visit by senior citizens some years ago. One gray-haired gentleman shook his head in amazement as he petted one of the babies. "I never expected to see, let alone touch, a reindeer in my lifetime," he said incredulously.   
    Reindeer are only part of the Rickert menagerie. Other residents of the farm include Miss Piggy, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig; Snow and Star, pristine white Alpacas; Bluebell and Baby Patch, miniature horses; Texie, a purebred Texas Longhorn cow; Sam, a Great Pyrennes dog; assorted white, black and brown rabbits; and Muffin, Angel and Princess, a trio of fallow deer. Smaller than the white-tailed variety, the spotted deer originally hailed from Europe, where they were pets of the rich and influential. The couple talk of adding a baby zebra or perhaps some buffalo calves in the future.
    "Our critters are just like children," Mary Rickert says. "No two are alike when it comes to personality, behavior, needs and desires. That goes for everybody from Rudy to Miss Piggy."


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