By Nancy Dorman-Hickson
A 15-pound bundle of joy was delivered to David Pepper in spring of 2011. By December of the following year, “Baby” Jingle was almost as big as Blitzen, her mom, and all the other reindeer.
Naturally, at that point, they let her join in all of their reindeer games.
“Blitzen turned out to be pregnant when we got her,” says Pepper, recounting the birth that increased his herd of reindeer to seven. Pepper and his wife, Jill Swenson, take care of the reindeer in Middle Tennessee at their farm, Strickland Place. This 90-acre hay farm in White House has been in his family for 100 years, receiving recognition as a Tennessee Century Farm and by the National Register of Historic Places. He and his dad, Wesley Pepper, own the farm.
David Pepper knew he wanted to work on the farm after the 2008 shutdown of the Peterbilt Motor Co. plant in Madison where he had worked for 20 years. “I was looking for an agritourism idea that nobody else was doing,” he says.
What to his wondering eyes should appear, but a vision of a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer – or seven, as it so happened. Soon after, Prancer, Comet, Snowflake and Holly came to live with him, followed by Vixen and the pregnant Blitzen. This year marks Pepper’s fifth year raising the animals, all of which are female.
He and Swenson think of their herd more like pets than livestock. “They’re docile by nature. They each have their own quirks and personalities,” he says. “Some of them are more friendly; some are more standoffish.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture required Pepper to build an 8-foot fence for the animals and periodically inspect his place. Reindeer prices vary, from $800 to $6,000 apiece, based on the age and training.
In previous years, the couple offered scheduled tours of the reindeer at the farm. But this year, they plan to show the unusual animals only at off-farm sites. So far, the animals have appeared at private parties, festivals, malls and resorts such as Gaylord Opryland. This season, Santa’s Reindeer Tours will exclusively be at Cheekwood in Nashville.
“It was such a big hit last year on Saturdays, they decided to expand it this year and make it Saturdays and Sundays,” he says. He or Swenson will be on hand to answer the public’s reindeer questions.
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A favorite repeated inquiry always makes him chuckle. “Over the years, we’ve had people ask, ‘Well, what are they really?’ ” he says. “I’ll say, ‘They’re reindeer!’ But they don’t believe that reindeer really exist.” He concedes the creatures are mainly recognized as characters from ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. And it’s true that they aren’t usually spotted as far south as Tennessee. Nonetheless, he’s quite sure reindeer are merely mystical, not mythical.
The arctic critters have adapted surprisingly well to the Volunteer State. In summer, “they pretty much hibernate in the barn,” Pepper explains. “I’ve got commercial fans that run 24 hours a day to help. Last year, we had some really extreme heat spikes of 109-degree days. So I bought an evaporative cooler.”
In summer, the animals also shed a lot of their hair. And since both male and female reindeer have antlers, Pepper’s group drops and re-grows their antlers every year as well. This comes after they shed their velvet, which covers the antlers. Losing their velvet and antlers doesn’t hurt the reindeer – rather, it’s more akin to losing a tooth.
Each reindeer weighs about 300 to 350 pounds and eats about five pounds a day of beet pulp, alfalfa hay and pelletized grain. Some of them love snacks, too. “We’ve yet to find a treat that Snowflake will eat, but Comet is a graham cracker hog!” Pepper says.
Despite his affection for them, he never forgets they are wild animals. “When you deal with the public, safety is an issue,” he says. So he puts up enclosures at large-crowd events. “We don’t want the animals to feel overwhelmed by people rushing them,” he explains.
Audiences usually love the fun facts Pepper and Swenson share. For example, he says, “When adult reindeer walk, they have a special tendon in their ankles that snaps like “snap, crackle, pop.” You can hear it pop when they walk. That’s so they can keep up with their herd if they can’t see in a snowstorm. But when the babies are born, their ankles don’t pop. That’s so that they don’t attract predators.”
That anatomical anecdote naturally lends itself to more Christmas lore. “You know the song, ‘Up on the rooftop, click, click, click?’” the reindeer owners tell their audience. “Well, it’s not necessarily their hooves but their ankles popping.”
To date, he has limited the herd to seven of Santa’s reindeer with no plans to fulfill that “eight tiny reindeer” passage from the famous poem. “I’ve got all the mouths that I want to feed,” Pepper says with a laugh. Besides, he doesn’t want to be greedy.
“Santa likes to spread them around so they can meet lots of kids everywhere,” he says.
If You Go …
See Santa’s reindeer on display at Cheekwood from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Nov. 30-Dec. 1, Dec. 7-8, Dec. 14-15, and Dec. 21-22). To learn more, visit cheekwood.org and go to the Public Programs section. For more information, check santasreindeertour.com.