The zoologist Jordi Casamitjana looks at the exploitation of reindeers in the UK where they are used as props for Christmas events such as parades, winter theme parks, seasonal markets, and festive decorations.

Christmas was a big deal when I grew up.

Although in Catalonia the main day children get presents is not Christmas Eve, but the Dia dels Reis (Kings’ Day) on the 6th of January, there is a big feast on Christmas Day where many festive foods are eaten. Another important seasonal tradition in Catalonia is that each household makes its own pesebre (nativity scene) with small figurines. This goes far beyond the classical stable with the Holy family, extending it into the rest of the village with many houses and characters (including the famous caganer which seems unique to Catalan culture).

Making the pesebre with all the figures, and making it different every year in a different part of the house, was one of my favourite things to do during the holidays. In addition to the main characters, we had small figurines of shepherds and other villagers, but also figurines of many animals, such as chickens, sheeps, donkeys, cows, etc. However, we didn’t have reindeers, as the presents were not given by Father Christmas, but by the three magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) who supposedly arrived by non-flying camels.

Since I emigrated to the UK over 30 years ago I haven’t really celebrated Christmas anymore, but, of course, many people around me do. However, the animals I see portrayed more often here are the reindeers, as they are the animals who legend says pull Santa’s sleigh. That would be fine by me but for one very bad problem. In the UK, the USA, and many European countries, nativities and Holiday events often involve people in costumes and, unfortunately, life animals too, and among the most common live animals seen are, naturally, reindeers. Some people keep reindeers in captivity all year just to be able to rent them for such seasonal events. 

Exploiting reindeers for Christmas is a sad business in the UK, and for many years animal protection organisations have been campaigning to abolish it. Although they have been progressing, there is still a long way to go.

Who Are the Reindeers

A group of reindeer walk in single file in the forest By Steve Barze via Shutterstock (1284110671)

Before moving on, I am sure you have noticed that I have been using the plural of reindeer as “reindeers”. Although in standard English both single and plural are the same (as is the case of deer), in veganised English, which is the one I use, we add “s” to the plurals of animals where this grammatical peculiarity occurs. The Rule 5 of veganised language, the one about zero inflexion plurals, states that “All animals are individuals and their individuality should be respected by not referring to them in plural nouns that have the same form as singular nouns (which is known as zero inflexion plurals) as this often happens in the case of animals who are treated as goods or hunted/fished.”

Having clarified that, who are the reindeers? They are different types of deers of the genus Rangifer (mostly of the species R. tarandus) who live in the Arctic, subarctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of Northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. They are therefore adapted to cold climates, and they have both sedentary and migratory populations. There are seven distinct types of reindeers (sometimes also called caribou), which some consider separate species and others sub-species of Rangifer tarandus. These include the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus), the Osborn’s caribou (R. t. osborni), the Arctic caribou (R. t. arcticus), the Peary caribou (R. t. pearyi), the Grant’s caribou (R. t. granti), the Eurasian mountain reindeer (R. t. tarandus), and the Siberian forest reindeer (R. t. valentinae).

The males are called bulls and the females cows. Regarding the names, reindeer is the European name for the species of Rangifer, while in North America they are known as Caribou. They are unique among deer species in that females may have antlers (although this does not happen in all subspecies), but males have bigger antlers. Anglers are not horns as they are dropped and grow again every year, and they initially are covered by skin. Bulls drop them in December while cows do around March. 

As they live in cold climates, reindeers have a coat with two layers of fur (and their hairs are hollow to better withstand freezing temperatures). They also have a dense network of blood vessels in their nose so they can keep them warm. Reindeers have large feet with crescent-shaped cloven hooves for walking in snow or swamps. In the summer, their hoof pads become sponge-like to roam the soft and muddy tundra, but in winter, their footpads shrink and tighten to expose the hoof rim and grip snow or ice.

As they are ruminant herbivores (like all Cervids) they eat plant-based food (up to 4-8 kg of vegetation a day), but sometimes they eat mushrooms and plant-like food that may still grow under arctic conditions but nobody else could eat elsewhere (such as lichens in winter, especially reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangiferina, which they can smell for miles). They are the only large mammals able to metabolize lichen because of the specialised bacteria and protozoa in their gut. 

Their eye colour changes from golden in the summer to blue in the winter, and they can see ultraviolet light, which allows them to distinguish objects better in the arctic conditions where white dominates everything.  

Reindeers are social animals who live in herds. Some populations of North America migrate the farthest of any terrestrial mammal, up to 5,000 km (3,000 mi) a year, and covering 1,000,000 km2 (400,000 sq mi). During winter, reindeers travel to forested areas to forage under the snow, but in Spring, they leave to go to the calving grounds. Reindeers mate in late September to early November (bulls battle for access to cows), the gestation period is about 228–234 days, and they produce very fatty milk. In the wild, bulls live up to 13 years and cows up to 17 years. Due to climate change and other factors, the IUCN has now classed some species of reindeer as ‘vulnerable’ as they have experienced a 40% decline in population over the past 27 years.

Another peculiarity of reindeers is that many are in a state of semi-domestication. Domesticated animals are  “human-made” animals created after many generations of artificial selection (which means humans systematically choosing who should mate with whom based on any human criteria they may choose — such as size, tameness, milk production, hair length, egg production, etc.), to the point that they end up being genetically different than their wild counterparts in such a significant way that scientists agree that they are no longer the same species or subspecies. For instance, dogs are domesticated animals from wild wolves, and cows are domesticated animals from a now-extinct wild ox. But if the process of domestication takes many generations, we are bound to find some animals who are still in that process, but it has not finished yet. This is the case of reindeers, with some human-managed populations (for food, clothing, and shelter) who are genetically still quite similar to their wild counterparts, but perhaps in a few more generations would become distinctive enough so a new sub-species could be assigned to them. They are not quite there yet, so they should still be considered wild animals, or at the most semi-domesticated. Besides, as people who exploit them keep them often in the same habitats the wild reindeers live in (often letting them go free part of the year and herding them occasionally), and their management does not involve much artificial selection, is possible that farmed reindeers may never get fully domesticated.

Reindeers Used as Festive Decorations

Christmas event with two reindeer in a small enclosure by a church in 2023 (c)Jordi Casamitjana

Every year in the UK, reindeers are used in Christmas displays, parades, seasonal markets, and other events as if they were just decorations instead of sentient beings. In 2021, the Born Free Foundation produced a report titled Exhibition or Exploitation which revealed that almost 600 reindeers were registered across Britain for use at mobile exhibitions. In 2023, more than 60 such events were identified, and according to the RSPCA, there are an estimated 1,500 live reindeers used in festive attractions in the UK alone.

These beautiful sensitive animals suffer because of all these events. To get to their “performance” location, many reindeers have to endure the stress of travelling for long distances in cramped conditions, often spending hours on the road in the back of a van or trailer as they are moved from venue to venue. One company in Scotland even travels as far as Cornwall in the south of England for events, a distance of nearly 700 miles. When they get to each “gig”, they have to experience the anxiety of being in unfamiliar locations, the fear of people trying to touch them, and the distress caused by loud noises and bright lights typical of Christmas events.

Often held in shopping centres, these animals are placed in small pens under glaring lights, surrounded by people and noise for days on end. They often have to stand on concrete (or other hard floors) the whole day, and they don’t have any place to hide or get some privacy away from inquisitive visitors. As prey animals, reindeers will run to protect themselves when feeling threatened, so several reindeers have escaped from their pens at festive events and have been found scared, wandering high streets and in car parks. 

The unfamiliar and unpredictable interaction with the public through petting and feeding can be stressful for reindeers, and they may be in a state of fear caused by the presence of dogs whom visitors may have with them, as these would be seen as “predator threats” as reindeers are predated by wolves. Additionally, during such events, reindeers have limited opportunities to undertake natural behaviours for constantly being in artificial places where wild animals like them do not belong. 

The Poor Animal Welfare of Exploited Reindeers

Blithbury-reindeer-lodge-4 (c) Animal Aid

Reindeers need a very special diet and to be housed in the right environment, which is often what they do not get when exploited for these events. A report by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in July 2013 stated: “There have been a number of reports of ill thrift and death in these animals due to poor management and their special dietary and environmental requirements… they are particularly likely to be kept by inexperienced owners for commercial reasons.”

Dr Ros Clubb, senior scientific manager at the RSPCA, said,We understand that it must seem magical for people to see a reindeer at Christmas, but the reality is reindeer are not easy to keep well and need specialised care, they get stressed very easily and are very susceptible to many health and welfare problems…In the wild, they are prey animals so they naturally hide their illnesses, and we’re concerned many owners may not realise their reindeer, which are attending stressful, busy festive events, are poorly or may not be able to spot the problems until it is too late…There’s also a concern that those keeping small numbers of reindeer on smallholdings to make money from them at seasonal events are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge needed to care for these animals properly.”

When the season is over, the reindeers return to the farms where they have been kept (and bread) in poor conditions. A 2018 investigation by Animal Aid uncovered how reindeers who are used in various Christmas displays are treated for the rest of the year. They found deliberate animal abuse including reindeers being kicked and shouted at; poorly looking reindeers with raw, exposed skin, diarrhoea and skeletal abnormalities; animals displayed for hours on end under bright lights with significant noise, with nowhere for the reindeers to retreat to. The footage at Blithbury Reindeer Lodge in Staffordshire, revealed animals in cramped and dirty pens, and at Cheshire Reindeer Lodge, in Flintshire, investigators found a reindeer whose outdoor access appeared to consist of just a barren yard.

Animal Aid’s Investigators said that the Kent Reindeer Centre was “The worst establishment in our investigation.” This centre is open to the public from mid-November through the Christmas period, 7 days a week. The findings of the investigation were reported to the relevant authorities, but in  January 2019 Animal Aid returned to the centre, to discover that many problems had remained. 

As the UK is not the right habitat for reindeers, the ones kept in Britain do not breed enough so the farmed populations have to be constantly topped with exported animals. Government figures requested by Animal Aid show that from 2014 to 2017, a total of 571 reindeers were imported into the UK, from places such as Sweden, Finland and Norway. 

Campaigning to Save Reindeers

Father Christmas on his sleigh pulled by reindeers during parade By Mick Atkins via Shutterstock (1232562160)

Several animal protection organisations in the UK have campaigned against the exploitation of reindeers, but there is one which has been quite effective in stopping the festive events that have been using these animals, one event at a time. Freedom for Animals (FFA) is the working name of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, a charity registered in England campaigning to end the keeping of animals in captivity in places such as zoos and circuses. It was founded in 1957 by retired school teacher Irene Heaton, at a time when circuses were at their peak and all had animals. After having managed to ban wild animals in circuses in the UK, they have started new campaigns, and one of them deals with animals used in festive events, as in the case of reindeers.

Every year their Festive Events Campaign fights for reindeers who are cruelly used as props for entertainment in the run-up to Christmas, and every year they manage to stop some events. I have been supporting them for years, and this is the latest campaign update I received from Isobel McNally, Festive Events Campaigner:

“In 2023, Wrexham Council has refused plans to build a new reindeer farm! We called on you to take action back in September to oppose these exploitative plans, so this is a huge victory for reindeer! Thank you for fighting for the freedom of animals with us.

The annual Oldham Parade is reindeer-free this year! Last year, you, and 590 more of our supporters took a stand and contributed to our online action against this event last year – so without you this success would not be possible. Thank you!

 Other major events we’ve campaigned against in previous years have told us that they are going animal-free this year too, including the annual Hamilton Parade and Flintshire Christmas Market!”

And we recently brought you the news that we have joined up with 10 charities to send a joint letter to events using live reindeer. This letter has now been sent to 140 events, and so we hope to share more news of events going animal-free soon!”

These eleven charities are Animal Aid, Born Free Foundation, Freedom for Animals, Onekind, Animal Defenders International, Wild Futures, PETA, Crustacean Compassion, the Human Society International, the League Against Cruel Sports, and the Mahavir Trust.

Another organisation campaigning to save reindeers is the Scottish animal rights organisation OneKind. They produced a report titled “Are Our ‘Magical Moments’ Worth Their Suffering? Welfare Concerns For Reindeer.” In it, they highlight the key welfare concerns for reindeers used at festive events

“• The event environment presents a variety of stimuli that may be perceived as threats, including loud noises and other animals. While reindeer may express vigilance in response to these threats, they have limited agency to act upon them, leading to fear. Constant fear and vigilance will contribute to an overall status of poor welfare.

• The event environment also restricts reindeer’s ability to engage in natural behaviours necessary for their wellbeing.

• The constant, unfamiliar and unpredictable interaction with the public through petting and feeding has the potential to be stressful for reindeer.

• Long distance travel, repeated loading and unloading and pulling Santa’s sleigh can cause physical and mental fatigue.

• The stress of transportation and the event environment can compromise immune system function, making them more susceptible to disease and infection.”

As well as recommending that the use of reindeers in entertainment events is ceased, the report also recommends that a reindeer welfare stakeholder group be identified in the UK and that the research base on reindeer welfare is broadened and a tool to assess reindeer welfare is developed.

How to Help Reindeers

Reindeer in winter tundra By Vladimir Melnikov via Shutterstock (1043297113)

If you want to help exploited reindeers in the UK, one of the current actions of Freedom from Animals is asking the public to contact Visit Hitchin, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire to ask them not to host reindeers at their event this Christmas. On the 16th and 17th of December Hitchin’s Market Place will play host to a small enclosure housing vulnerable reindeers. If you are from the UK you could help by signing a pre-written letter they have on their website.

Freedom for Animals has also created an interactive map of the UK where people can see where events with live animals have been planned and therefore can complain to the organisers and local authorities concerned. Those events that decided to stop using live animals are also marked in green on the map. Fortunately, the map now shows more than 20 green events, showing that the campaign is working. Indeed, in one campaign update I received on 10th November 2023, Laura Walton, Campaigns Manager from Freedom for Animals, wrote, “We already know of 33 events that used live animals last year now advertising animal-free events this year, so your help in asking them to make the compassionate decision and stop using animals as props truly works.”

Additionally, the activist Caroline Larner created a change.org petition asking that Lapland UK stop using live reindeer. Lapland UK  announced their plans to return to Whitmoor Forest in Berkshire with their Christmas theme park from 11th November to 24th December 2023, despite the previous year the same petition reached 39,007 signatures

Christmas is a big deal for many people, but it is a sad period for many animals. Not only those millions of turkeys killed for the occasion but also for all the animals forced to “perform” in Christmas parades and similar events. Among camels and donkeys, reindeers, who are still wild animals who belong to the wild, find themselves suffering in shopping centres and city halls for no other reason than to entertain people for a few hours, and then kept captive in the wrong place under poor conditions for the rest of the year before the whole ordeal is repeated the following December.

There is nothing festive about that.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.