Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 20, 2006)
Are they male or female?
This reindeer is sporting a nice set of antlers.
On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and Vixen. On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen! Did we mention Rudolf? Altogether doesn’t that make nine?

It is said that each year these super strong and agile reindeer pull a hefty sleigh overwhelmed with an enormous bag of toys and a rather portly, elderly gentleman, garishly clad in bright red velvet, around the world in one single night delivering toys to all good boys and girls. If we are willing to accept this as plausible, then would we concern ourselves with whether these reindeer are male or female?

For the past six years a lighthearted e-mail has inevitably cropped up and been circulated to everyone’s e-mail list and beyond. The reindeer gender debate heats up with each holiday season: Are the Reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh male or female? In good spirits, my charming and curious mother-in-law requested to learn the answer to this perplexing dilemma. Okay Mom, this is a tough one, writer says with a grin, but I’m hot on the trail searching for answers.

An e-mail version of the unsolved quandary: “According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year (the only members of the deer family, Cervidae, to have females do so). Male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring.

Therefore, according to every historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, every single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen had to be a girl. We should have known this ... Only women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night, and not get lost.”

First, what is a reindeer? Reindeer and Caribou are the same species. The differences being North Americans refer to this animal as a caribou, although in Alaska and Canada the domestic forms are called reindeer. In Europe, caribou are called reindeer where the reindeer has been domesticated for centuries providing meat, milk, cheese and clothing. Both animals wild or domesticated are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers. Other female deer and moose do not grow antlers.

Adult male (bull) caribous drop their antlers in the fall and early winter. Females (cow) drop their antlers in early spring. Here’s where the controversy begins. Since the Caribou bulls lose their antlers before Christmas; are all the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh female? According to the chronological interpretation portraying Santa’s reindeer, every single reindeer may be female. What do the experts have to say?

Growing antlers is a yearly process. Both bull and cows may have antlers that weigh up to 20 pounds and be up to 4 feet wide. The bull’s antlers are large and massive, branching out. The adult cow’s antlers are smaller, shorter, slender and irregular.

The largest bulls shed their antlers in late October, but small bulls and nonpregnant cows do not shed their antlers until April. Pregnant females usually retain their antlers until calves are born in late May or early June.

The key word is “largest bulls” or most bulls. So, according to investigation, it seems Santa’s sleigh is likely pulled by at least a few superbly fit females gifted with a good sense of direction, perhaps an old gentleman that somehow avoided the violent hormonal perils and exhaustion of the fall rut and a couple of strong, young, adventurous bulls just along for the joy ride.

Enjoy this holiday season with a joyful smile … back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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