You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But do you know about Utah’s reindeer, and the Utah County veterinarian who certifies them for Santa Claus?
By day, Dr. Isaac Bott owns and operates Mountain West Animal Hospital in Springville, caring for dogs and cats. But he’s also one of the world’s only reindeer reproductive specialists.
When he’s not treating house pets, “seasonally, I do go work on reindeer all over the world,” Bott said.
Reindeer are a threatened species, and Bott uses artificial insemination to help prop up the global population and keep domestic herds genetically diverse. With the help of his own seven reindeer, he’s brought several dozen more of the “magical” animals into existence the past 10 years.
Each December in Logan, though, he shares some of that magic with Utah, where he helps approve a few of the animals to work with Santa for the season as families gather to watch.
The birth of a passion
Bott started working with reindeer in 2010, after graduating from veterinary school the year prior. He remembers driving down Interstate 15 when he received a call from someone who suspected their reindeer was pregnant, and asked Bott if he could come by their property to take a look.
When Bott arrived, he found the reindeer in active labor.
“So it was an easy pregnancy diagnosis,” Bott said. “I kind of helped deliver that baby. ... [They] required lots of follow up care, and I kind of just fell in love with the species starting at that point.”
As Bott got to know the reindeer’s owner — Matt Shadle, owner of Sandy’s M&T Christmas Trees — they discussed artificial insemination for reindeer, since the man had five total reindeer he kept for seasonal events.
The problem: His herd’s birth rates were not as high as they should’ve been, in part because uncastrated male reindeer can be extremely violent during mating season, which can put herders in danger if they choose to let the reindeer reproduce naturally.
“I have to wear a bulletproof vest and everything when I work with the males,” Bott said. “The rest of the year, they’re great, it’s just that [mating] time.”
The two soon decided to embark on the project, and about a year later, Bott delivered the world’s first female reindeer calf through artificial insemination. Her name is Mira, which stands for miracle. Now about 11 years old, she still lives on Shadle’s property.
“We are very blessed to have somebody like Dr. Bott with his skill and knowledge for all animals, not just reindeer,” Shadle said. “I learn so much every time I’m around him. And for me, I think that’s the greatest treasure of all is learning and being skilled at a broad base of things.”
The job of a reindeer — beyond Christmas
Although there are around 100 reindeer farms across the country, reindeer are not native to the Americas. The animals are more commonly found in Asia and Scandinavia, although their closely-related cousins — the caribou — recently went extinct in the lower 48 states.
Reindeer are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species, which means they are at a high risk of becoming extinct worldwide. In 2015, scientists found that the species had experienced a 40% decline over three generations of its population — about 24 years in total, according to the IUCN.
“Caribou crossed over on the land bridge thousands and thousands of years ago, and reindeer were actually brought by boat in the beginning of 1892 from Siberia to Alaska,” Bott said.
Reindeer are migratory animals, Bott said, and their entire lives are timed by day length and seasonality. He note that their numbers have declined largely due to human development, which has disrupted their longstanding migratory paths.
The animals also are a sentinel species, which means they serve as indicators of danger to humans or a specific environment, like arctic tundras.
Reindeer have adapted to their environment’s harsh winters in many ways — like being able to control their gestation.
Regardless of when they are bred, female reindeer in a herd will give birth at the same time, and are able to shorten or lengthen their gestation periods to synchronize with their migrations, Bott said.
They have developed vision in ultraviolet light, which helps the herds migrate through arctic regions that experience weeks of total darkness.
And, the animals’ joints make clicking noises when they move, so herds can stay together even during whiteout conditions.
“They’re an incredible animal,” Bott said. “Especially the Scandinavian countries — that is their livelihood; there are reindeer farmers. They’re called the Sámi people, and they herd those animals and live with them and even ride them.”
“With the world, how modern everything is, that certainly is declining,” Bott said, “and that’s sad.”
A ‘magical’ species
On Dec. 2, Bott visited Utah State University with two of his reindeer — nicknamed Comet and Cupid — for the university’s “Reindeer Express” event. He and other veterinarians certified the two animals for their flight with Santa as dozens of children looked on in awe and their parents snapped photos.
“Being able to take the reindeer to an event like this, and seeing children — the first interaction they have with the reindeer — this is an animal that most people really haven’t seen in person,” Bott said. “It’s a magical thing.”
Bott purchased his own reindeer in 2014, when he first bought the Springville veterinary clinic. Since then, his herd has grown to seven, including a male named Maximus, a castrated mall named Sven, a female named Yuki, and three young females named Flower, Evangeline and Lumi.
The herd’s newest addition is a young male named Naveen, who was born this year as a product of artificial insemination — and whose sire died in 2011. The calf was named after “The Princess and the Frog” character by his children, who are big Disney fans, he said.
Each year, Bott takes about a dozen trips across the country and the globe so others can have the experience of meeting a reindeer — and so he can help the species persevere.
“It’s incredible when you can perform a surgery and save a life,” Bott said, recounting a C-section he performed on a reindeer who went on to have another baby years later.
“There are several million species on Earth; anytime we lose a species the world just becomes a lot more lonely,” Bott said.
“We’re the only species that can do anything about it,” he said, “so it’s a tremendous responsibility we have.”