Redmond, Ore. -- It was once the largest herd of domesticated reindeer in the U.S., but now Operation Santa Claus reindeer ranch, near Redmond, is following the path of the buffalo, in what is becoming a dying Christmas tradition.
The 20-acre spread off of Highway 126 on the outskirts of Redmond was originally founded by John Zumstein in the early 1950s. Zumstein set up shop with a handful of reindeer from Alaska. That ranch was taken over by Redmond couple Cindy and Mike Gillaspie in 1984 while the number of antlered folk continued to climb, eventually reaching over 120 reindeer – and holding the title as the country's largest domesticated herd.
Around the 1990s, business was brisk for the Gillaspies. They and their two girls traveled with what Cindy calls “Rudolph’s relatives” across the nation. They took their reindeer to Disneyland, the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and other Christmas parades and events.
But in a series of deer regulations that also covered domesticated reindeer, the family met with a blow to their operations.
“It’s what we call our Y2K bug,” Cindy Gillaspie says.
Around the 2000s, a fear of chronic wasting disease hit Oregon. The disease is nontreatable and fatal, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began to have concerns after seeing outbreaks of the disease in both wild and farm-raised herds in surrounding states. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that although the disease has not been spread to humans, it does affect “the brain of infected deer, elk and moose" and typically "causes progressive loss of body condition.”
“That was in the early 2000s,” Cindy Gillaspie says.
Following the general alarm, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife put into effect regulations that minimized the spread of the disease by banning imported elk, deer and other related species. Unfortunately for the Gillaspies, the regulation spread to reindeer ranches, and killed their ability to bring in breeding stock.
“Once we found that we would not be able to bring in any new breeding stock, we did not breed for a number of years,” Cindy Gillaspie says. “We sold where we could, those kinds of things, just to make it more cost-efficient.”
Eventually it got to the point where the ranch was no longer self-sustaining.
“Mike and I went to work outside to support the reindeer instead of the reindeer supporting us,” Gillaspie says. “I guess turnabout is fair play.”
Mike and Cindy’s ranch follows a nationwide trend. Regulations have been implemented in states across the country, and reindeer ranches are now on the decline. Although Operation Santa Claus reindeer ranch continues to pull through, along with similar ranches in the Northwest like Timberview Farm Reindeer in Oregon and Reindeer Express in Reardan, Washington, the farm took a hard hit in numbers. Operation Santa Claus no longer holds claim to the largest herd, as the numbers now range from about a dozen to 30 reindeer, depending on the season.
“We have a few babies ever year,” Cindy says. “But our numbers are way down. There’s no sense in having a lot of mouths to feed if they can’t support themselves. … I know Santa and the reindeer and Rudolph is very important this time of year, and we agree with that, but it is a business and you have to run it like a business.”
The family continues to operate the farm with a smaller reach. They deworm and work with local veterinarians to keep their certifications up-to-date. And Cindy says one of the more fortunate aspects of the situation is that the regulations still allow them to take the reindeer out of state. The family takes advantage of this, and during the holidays their reindeer can be found on display in a number of Californian locations. The herd was last in Disneyland in 2012, and might be coming back once the park completes some renovations.
“Maybe that was Santa Claus’ doing and he decided it was important for us to still take them out and show them,” Cindy says. “If that’s the case, way to go big guy!”
The ranch also continues local operations. During the Christmas season, families can drop by during arranged times to get their photos with Santa and the reindeer, and the reindeer can also be viewed at any time of the day year-round. Locally, Cindy and Mike keep it simple, letting visitors park and explore in a self-guided tour for no charge. But as the number of reindeer continues to decline, the local tradition is also in danger.
“There are more people moving into the area who don’t know about Operation Santa Claus,” Cindy says. “A lot of people really don’t understand the history and how long the ranch has been here. Since we don’t generate any income here, we’ve never done any advertising here.”
The ranch still gathers together dedicated Central Oregonians that make the yearly Christmas trek, or will stop by the ranch during spring birthing. But for those longtime devotees, Cindy says they’ll have to face the slow end of the reindeer ranch.
“We don’t fault the state of Oregon; we understand,” Cindy says. “It’s just that we’re, unfortunately, probably going to be the people here when there are no more reindeer in Central Oregon. And I’m not sure I can take that pressure.”