THE thought of meeting a real-life reindeer at a Christmas event is exciting for people of all ages, but the animal welfare charity is concerned that these complex creatures could be suffering.
Specialist deer vets report a range of problems in reindeer kept in the UK, including a lack of weight gain, weight loss, diarrhoea, poor muscle development, poor antler growth, malformed antlers, low fertility and high calf mortality.
RSPCA Senior Scientific Manager in wildlife Dr Ros Clubb said: “As Christmas approaches, we and other animal welfare charities are really concerned that reindeer used in festive events across the country could be suffering in silence. Reindeer are kept here in the UK year-round but we always see more calls about them in the build up to Christmas, which is when they’re taken out to be on display at festive events.
“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.”
Reindeer at Christmas events may be transported long distances and spend time in small pens where they have nowhere to retreat to and hide if they feel stressed. They are often petted and fed by many members of the public, or may take part in busy parades.
They are exposed to busy environments, surrounded by crowds, noise and lights, which can cause the semi-wild animals a great deal of stress.
Welfare organisations fear that many people taking on reindeer, that are highly adapted to living in arctic conditions, do not realise they are more complicated to care for than their cloven-hoofed cousins such as cattle, goats and sheep and, as a result, reindeers are suffering.
Dr Clubb continued: “These animals are semi-wild and not the same as deer that are native to the UK and it is much more difficult to meet their needs in this country.
They are not suited to being kept in very small groups in confined spaces and they’re vulnerable to a host of health and welfare problems in this country. There’s also a concern that those keeping small numbers of reindeer on small holdings to make money from them at seasonal events are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge needed to care for these animals properly.”
Dr Clubb added: “Unfortunately, there are no formal requirements for registering reindeer and so we don’t know how many are being kept and where.
“We love Christmas and we understand why families may think that paying to visit an attraction with live reindeer would be a magical, festive thing to do, but we want this to be a happy and healthy time for humans and animals alike. We ask that people consider the welfare implications of the animals involved, and perhaps look for events which do not include live animals. Families could even do something to help native wildlife and have some festive fun, by making wildlife-friendly ‘reindeer food’ to leave in the garden for Rudolph, and wild birds.”
Our rescue teams will be out in all weathers this winter, rescuing animals from abuse, neglect and suffering. To Join the Winter Rescue and help our rescuers be there for the animals in need, please visit www.rspca.org.uk/rescuexmas