There’s a brief moment of anxiety when an adult reindeer approaches you.
I was visiting the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm, standing inside a pen with my 5-year-old son and newborn baby, when a hefty bull named Sven sidled up to us in search of a handout.
Reindeer aren’t very tall — they only stand about waist-high, but their antlers are formidable. An adult can grow 30 pounds of antler, which is second in the animal kingdom only to the moose.
But one of the great joys about meeting a live reindeer is learning they’re quite docile. While they can look intimidating, the domesticated deer species are more like doe-eyed cows than twitchy horses.
Whatever misgivings I had about a creature with huge antlers eating from my child’s hand quickly dissolved. Even the most jaded Grinch will turn gooey inside the moment a reindeer’s velvety snout nuzzles the palm of their hand.
Leavenworth is the only place in Washington state where the public can rub shoulders with a herd of reindeer — an experience as quintessentially Christmas as the season can get.
The perfect setting
The village of Leavenworth has embraced its reputation as Christmastown, USA. With a mountain setting draped in winter snow and quaint storefronts, a Christmas visit to Leavenworth is a classic Northwest bucket-list activity.
So it’s only fitting that there are reindeer living a few blocks from downtown.
Owners Kari and Hans Andersen were surprised to learn that Leavenworth has the same latitude as parts of Mongolia, where some of the healthiest herds of reindeer thrive naturally. With blankets of snow covering the ground, the couple’s reindeer feel right at home.
Our tour at Leavenworth Reindeer Farm started inside a cozy barn, where chilled visitors sipped hot chocolate. In the winter months, a full-time Santa is on hand to meet visitors and sit for photos. Standing at the entrance was Moonshine, a mellow adult reindeer who was a natural when it came to posing for selfies.
A host of farm animals roamed the grounds, so we took turns meeting and feeding the miniature ponies, pigs, chickens, turkeys, bunnies, ducks and draft horses that wandered around.
Then came a fireside chat — we held antlers, learned a brief history of the farm and heard more about the lives of these fascinating animals. Finally, armed with small bowls of feed, we moved into the pen, where we were greeted by about a dozen reindeer from the friendly herd.
Parents were reminded to shield their children’s eyes during the visit. The animals aren’t aggressive — just a little excited for their lunch, and 30 pounds of headgear sometimes gets in the way of a good meal.
Starting a reindeer business
It might seem like an obvious venture to start a reindeer farm in Leavenworth, but reindeer farms in the lower 48 states are fairly rare.
About five years ago, the Andersens were running commercial horse-and-carriage rides in Leavenworth. During a parade, the town’s artificial reindeer mascot couldn’t be used due to rain. With Kris Kringle was riding in one of the Andersens’ carriages, Hans told Santa Claus, “Don’t worry, next year we’ll get you some real reindeer!”
That offhand comment planted a seed in Kari’s mind. She wondered if bringing reindeer to town was even possible — and got to work researching. The couple attended conferences on reindeer husbandry and soon began flying to Alaska to visit farms.
Learning that the climate and elevation would be healthy for the animals was the green light for the couple to bring a permanent herd to Leavenworth. But moving live reindeer to Washington state was a process marked by thick, red tape. The family ultimately had to bring the first animals down from Alaska on a six-day ferry ride.
In February 2017, three additional, pregnant reindeer flew with Alaska Airlines Cargo from Anchorage. “We tell all our guests that reindeer really do fly,” Kari Andersen says. “They fly Alaska Airlines!”
Three reindeer calves were born that spring, including a bull named Sven, who now weighs now 600 pounds. Sven is the father of all seven calves born on the farm this spring.
This season will be the fourth Christmas for the family herd, and the three-acre farm is open for daily tours just a few blocks from downtown Leavenworth.
Fun facts about reindeer
Reindeer — or caribou, as they’re known when undomesticated — live naturally in cold, northern climates — and their bodies have adapted with some remarkable characteristics.
In the winter, a reindeer’s leg temperature will lower to 33 degrees while the rest of their body remains at 101 degrees.
Their thick fur has 10,000 follicles per square inch, and their outer fur is hollow, which aids in insulation and buoyancy.
That’s important because reindeer are excellent swimmers — clocking in at a 6.2 mph, they could outrace Michael Phelps. Calves start running by the second day of life; by day three, they can outrun Olympic sprinters. Adults, meanwhile, can race at 50 mph.
Reindeer have a clicking tendon in their legs that helps them locate each other during long, dark nights, and the animals can
see in ultraviolet, making them one of the few mammals known to see in this spectrum. This helps the herd find food and see predators in blinding snowfields.
The females are a rarity in the animal kingdom for growing antlers, which they can use to clear up to 3 feet of snow in search of food.
Despite Christmas illustrations that depict reindeer as large as horses, in reality, adult reindeer only stand about waist-high.
Touring Leavenworth Reindeer Farm
The Leavenworth Reindeer Farm is open for tours year-round with a reservation. It’s the only farm in the state where the public can meet live reindeer.
Winter tickets are $20 per person. Kids age 2 and younger are free. That rate drops to $12 per person from March to June and $15 per person from July to October.
Visitors get the chance to hand-feed reindeer and pose for photos during their 45-minute tour. Santa is available for all tours during November and December.
Reindeer calves are born in the spring but are still small and cute during the winter months. The farm currently has seven baby reindeer.
Book tickets online at www.leavenworthreindeer.com.
More seasonal fun in Leavenworth
Leading up to the holidays, Leavenworth is buzzing with winter activity. Here’s what’s on tap this season.
Leavenworth’s famous Christmas lights are illuminated every night from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, but on weekends during December, the Christmas Lighting Festival takes place — during the ceremony, more than a half million lights are turned on at once.
A new, temporary outdoor ice-skating rink will be open at Lions Club Park near downtown from Nov. 22 through January. Admission is $15 per person, including rental skates.
And to cap off the holiday season, Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum has more than 5,000 authentic nutcrackers from 40 countries on display.