By Deb Everts
Every year during the Christmas season, a man tours Western New York with his reindeer. Some may guess it’s St. Nicholas in a miniature sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer but, in this case, it’s Mike Morton.
Morton, who owns Sun-Dance-Kids Farm in Conewango Valley, has added a new reindeer to his collection of animals. Six-month-old Comet arrived at his new home on Morton’s farm Nov. 10, and he’s already at work.
“One of his first gigs was at the Santa Parade, in Falconer, Nov. 23. He was absolutely awesome with the crowd and he loved the people,” Morton said. “I worked with him for about a week and got him used to everything. He didn’t mind the fire trucks going by and the other vehicles. He’s very laid back and very inquisitive. He just loves to be petted and all the attention he gets from everybody.”
Morton said it can be difficult to find a reindeer for purchase. He said some of his first reindeer came out of Michigan and a few were purchased in the Adirondacks. This time, he ended up going all the way to a zoo in Minnesota where he found baby Comet.
“I rode all the way home from Minnesota with him in the back of my van. I played with him and petted him, so he got all kinds of attention. By the time we got home, I knew he was going to be good with people,” he said. “For traveling and being away from his mother and the rest of his original herd, it was impressive to see him settle in and be comfortable with it all so quickly.”
PEOPLE ASK Morton a lot of questions about reindeer, especially children. He said a little girl recently asked him how reindeer fly. His response was, “Their hair is hollow and it fills up with hot air so, just like a hot air balloon, they rise up in the air and can fly.”
Because Comet is already so good with people and so cute, Morton thinks his reindeer companion will do the bulk of holiday appearances with him this year.
“He’s got the cuteness right down and he’s so sweet that I’ll probably use him right along unless he gets tired,” he said. “I don’t see that happening because it didn’t phase him working all day at Falconer and Fredonia, or at the three-day Christmas in Ellicottville event. He’s so well-behaved and so good about everything.”
Morton said caribou are the closest thing to wild reindeer and reindeer are basically a subspecies of caribou. He said reindeer are native to Lapland, which is in the northern part of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. There are only about 5,000 reindeer in North America.
Just like domestic cattle, reindeer are called bulls, cows and calves. Morton said no special license is required to raise reindeer. They are a domestic animal like a cow, sheep or goat.
“A reindeer averages from 340-360 pounds and they live to be about 20 years old,” he said. “Both males and females have antlers and lose them every year. Reindeer start getting their antlers within 12 hours of birth and Comet already has a good start on his set.”
According to enature.com, female reindeer retain their antlers from one spring until the next, while mature males shed their antlers in the fall and are unadorned on Christmas Eve. This means, the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh must be females or youngsters.
REINDEER ARE both easy and difficult to raise, Morton said. He said no grooming is required and they love to swim and play in the rain, so they keep themselves pretty clean.
“Although they are very strong and can pull about 1,100 to 1,200 pounds apiece, they are also quite delicate and there are a lot of things that can make them sick,” he said. “Their diets have to be watched closely, and they’re susceptible to deer brain worm which whitetail deer carry, but don’t have a problem with.”
Reindeer are a full-time business for Morton this time of year. From the beginning of November through the first of January, he travels to events all over Western New York from the Buffalo area, east to Andover and into Pennsylvania with his reindeer. They visit schools, nursing homes and also do private parties.
“We go from three to six different places every single day, seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” he said.
Morton’s animal programs are very popular as well, and he’s up to 400-500 bookings each year making appearances with his baby animals and petting zoo. He’s currently visiting 20 schools every month with a different animal.
Morton said he and his wife, Robin, have been doing the animal programs for almost 30 years. When he’s on the road with an animal, she’s home taking care of the hundreds of animals that live on their farm.
Sun-Dance-Kids Farm is located at 207 Route 62, near Conewango Valley. There is no petting zoo to visit at the Mortons’ farm because it’s always traveling to various events and animal programs. For more information, call 287-2719.