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Tending reindeer far from North Pole

Reindeer farmer Michael Jablonski started his business as a hobby, a way to entertain children whose parents shopped for Christmas trees at his Village Green Nursery in Hamburg. That was in the 1990s. Today Jablonski is president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA), a national organization with 120 members.

This season is a busy one for Jablonski, whose herd is in demand at holiday events along the East Coast. Reindeer, Jablonski said, are a lot like pets. They grow on you.

>People Talk: Did you see yourself a reindeer farmer?

Michael Jablonski: No. I grew up in South Buffalo right in front of the Irish Center, and went to Bishop Timon High School. Now, my grandfather was a farmer. My mother came off a farm in Fort Erie. I always liked it, but never thought I'd be raising reindeer, no.

>PT: How many reindeer do you have?

MJ: A bunch. It's a Scandinavian thing that goes back to the Samis, who started herding reindeer over a thousand years ago. They said it was bad luck to say how many reindeer you have. It's like someone going into your bank account and asking how many dollars you have in there.

>PT: Reindeer are cousins to the caribou?

MJ: Yes, they're all in the deer family, but they're genetically different. Reindeer were around before cows.

>PT: What is a reindeer's purpose?

MJ: In Scandinavian countries, it's for milk, transportation, meat -- and for all their cultural traditions.

>PT: Are reindeer high-maintenance?

MJ: Definitely. Their hooves need to be trimmed once or twice a year. They're a northern animal, so they're in a vaccination program. They are a very tough animal, but because they are so tough, the signs of sickness are very little. They can be sicker than a dog -- on their deathbed -- and they'll still walk up and perform for you. It's just like having a dog.

>PT: Are you serious?

MJ: Yes. We train them. They can pull sleighs. They're walked to lead. You can usually train most reindeer within a day. From there, they'll get smarter and smarter.

>PT: You have names for them?

MJ: Oh yeah, everybody has a name: Snowflake, Noel. One was named Figley at the fair by a little girl who thought a baby reindeer looked like a Christmas fig. We have Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, Babes, Hamburg, Sniffles.

>PT: Reindeer are an odd investment.

MJ: It started as a hobby. On our farm, we sold Christmas trees for over 20 years. We aren't selling trees this year because, just like everything else, the box stores have wrecked another thing for Christmas.

>PT: How did you start in the reindeer business?

MJ: I brought two reindeer here in the mid-'90s for the kids whose parents were shopping for trees. I just fell in love with the animals, so the hobby has become a farming thing, but you will never become rich raising reindeer.

>PT: Your services are in demand?

MJ: Oh yes, but moving reindeer is not easy. You have to be accredited with permits. Every time you move them you need a permit -- surprise, surprise.

>PT: If I wanted to buy a reindeer ...

MJ: I don't know if you would be able to. It took me almost three or four years to get a reindeer, and then it happened by luck. I went to a reindeer meeting, and a guy said he was going to Alaska for reindeer, and if he had any extra he'd give me one. I just laughed. And then a couple of days before Thanksgiving, they show up.

>PT: How far have your reindeer traveled?

MJ: As far west as San Diego, where the zoo bought a couple calves from us because they were short on their polar display. Show-wise, we've gone as far as the Carolinas and Florida. Reindeer have no pores in their skin, so if they're pulling a sleigh they will pant and their tongues will be out like a kid -- no matter if it's minus 20 or 80 degrees.

>PT: What's their life span?

MJ: Twelve to 15 years.

>PT: What do they do during the summer?

MJ: Lie in the shade and eat reindeer chow. They like apples and beet-pulp pellets. Reindeers need fiber.

>PT: What is key to a happy reindeer?

MJ: They don't like mud. Eighteen inches of rain this spring really made them unhappy.

>PT: What about you is a good fit with reindeer?

MJ: I'll stick with them no matter what. If they're sick, I'll do what it takes to make them healthy.

>PT: Why do they appeal to you?

MJ: There's something magical about them. Many a father has come to me saying their child has forgotten what Christmas is about until they see reindeer. Then they might get another year or two of the magic.

>PT: What's a common question from children?

MJ: Where's Rudolph?