Heidi Zemach for SCN-
Tourists to Seward are usually delighted to see bald eagles, or possibly catch a glimpse of a moose or bear off the road. But when Shannon Bodo, a construction worker from Big Lake, rolled into town Tuesday evening with his flatbed trailer with his young reindeer, “Forrest” caged in the back , and took him out behind the laundromat at Third Avenue and Jefferson streets, people raced over to see them.
They never stopped coming.
Bodo and his reindeer have already met hundreds of people since he began walking Forrest around town on a leash last weekend. He expects to meet a good many more people on the Fourth of July Mount Marathon race weekend, and throughout the rest of the summer, when he brings up a few of his baby reindeer to the area from his Aurora Borealis Reindeer Farm in Big Lake.
There’s no city code that says people can’t walk their animals around in public, as long as they don’t charge money, and Bodo isn’t doing that, said City Planner Donna Glenz. He’s merely giving people the opportunity to donate to his reindeer farm if they wish.
Forrest is a year and a half old, and a rather friendly fellow for a member of the deer family. He’s been around people since he was only a week old. He allows people to pet him, and take pictures, but does not appear to seek out their affection. He eagerly chomped dandelions Tuesday afternoon, seemingly oblivious to all the attention he was receiving from bystanders. His fur is extremely soft, but his antlers are quite sensitive, so Bodo encourages people to be gentle or refrain from handling them.
Bodo talks to all who stop by about Forrest, to tries to educate them a little about Alaska reindeer and caribou, and about his farm in Big Lake where he’s begun raising a small reindeer herd of eight. One day when the heard reached about 100 head, they will be sold off for meat for his retirement. Bodo accepts their donations to help pay for their food and veterinary visits. Bodo grew up on a horse farm in Michigan, and has been around animals all his life. He says the farm is also working on a project with some Alaska Native Councils around Wasilla interested in farming reindeer as a sustainable food source, or creating a new cottage industry.
As the herd grows each year, he also raises money by selling off the males, either for meat, or farming them out to 4-H children, or preferably to be used as a tourist attraction. At this point, Forrest is the herd’s main breeder, and he may be studded out to other reindeer farms.
Except for his smaller dark velvet antlers, Forrest resembles the mountain man’s pet reindeer “Sven,” a primary character from the 2013 Disney animated cartoon hit “Frozen.” Often, children will ask if Forrest helps Santa deliver presents, or if he’s Santa, Bodo said.
Forrest gets more animated and curious when Bodo goes to his truck to take out a handful of pellets for a five-year-old visitor named Brandon to give him. Even more so when his handler collects a sample package of reindeer sausage to offer to the bystanders. Bodo will showcase a few of his reindeer at the July 4th Mt Marathon Race Weekend and give away some reindeer sausage samples.
Bodo had originally planned to set up shop as a transient vendor on a private lot in downtown Seward, near the Seward Hotel. But decided to look elsewhere when the deal fell through over the property owner’s terms. He had already applied for a city business license and obtained a million dollars of insurance coverage, and was working toward getting a transient vendors permit, he said. A related plan to set up a camera and sell photos of people with the reindeer also went by the wayside when he realized everybody already had their own cameras, or camera phones, so it didn’t make sense.
Now he and his partner plan to set up a pen for a few of his younger reindeer on Tim McDonald’s lakeside campground property outside of city limits along the Seward Highway, where McDonald plans to open a coffee stand. People will be able to purchase deer pellets out of bubble-gum machines to feed the deer. Bodo also is talking with the Seavey Family about possibly showing reindeer on their Iditaride Sled-dog property off Exit Glacier/Herman Leirer Road during the summer tourist season.
There are an estimated 18,000 reindeer in Alaska, and about 12,000 of them are on the Seward Peninsula, not to be confused with Kenai Peninsula Borough, where the City of Seward is located. Reindeer are also found on Nunivak Island, St. Lawrence Island, the Pribilof Islands and some of the Aleutian Islands.
Reindeer meat is extremely sought after in Alaska, and there is great growth potential for the industry here, said Greg Finstad, program manager for the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Reindeer were imported to Alaska as a food source in the beginning of the 20th century, and were used as draft animals to haul gear for gold miners and to deliver mail. Today, they are raised mainly as a source of farmed meat.
While caribou are taller, more elegant, and tend to roam farther, sometimes migrating hundreds of miles, reindeer are stockier, have squarer heads, shorter legs, larger antlers, and tend to stick together in one place. But when caribou are in the area, the domestic reindeer have a tendency to disappear, joining their wild caribou cousins, and interbreeding with them. Three-quarters of the Seward Peninsula reindeer herds have been lost to caribou, Finstad said.