I have been saving this since Christmas. How interesting… reindeer. And, reindeer farms.
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Little Buddy, a reindeer who is now 7 months old, overcame a life-threatening tick-borne illness in November through veterinary help and the companionship of his half-brother Moose. (Dec. 21, 2017) Max Schulte
“Santa needs good reindeer.”
That was what Red Jacket High School principal Mark Bracy told Mike Schaertl in early November. Schaertl, a chemistry and physics teacher in the district for the last 20 years, had gone home during his lunch hour to check on his two reindeer, Little Buddy and Moose.
Schaertl said Little Buddy had been noticeably lethargic the previous two days. He was urinating blood and didn’t want to go on one of their weekly walks in the neighborhood.
Through the love (and blood) of his half-brother and the care and creativity of veterinarians at Cornell’s animal hospital, Little Buddy overcame a deadly tick-borne illness and is now providing holiday cheer to those who visit the Schaertls’ “hobby farm” in Shortsville, Ontario County. It’s a Christmas miracle of sorts.
“Doctors at Cornell said they get one or two cases of this disease every year and Little Buddy is the first who has survived and gone home healthy,” Schaertl said. “The reindeer are like dogs. They’re part of your family. We’ve grown attached to them.”
Schaertl called his veterinarian, Dr. Mike Cary at Chemung County’s Towne & Country Veterinary Hospital. Cary, who is a reindeer owner and breeder, told Schaertl he needed to take Little Buddy to Cornell University’s Equine and Nemo Farm Animal Hospital for immediate care.
Cary cautioned Schaertl that if Little Buddy wasn’t taken to Cornell in the next six to eight hours, he could die. The veterinarian told Schaertl, “If you want any chance of saving this reindeer, you’ve got to get him to Cornell immediately.”
And since reindeer are social animals who live in herds, Cary told Schaertl to take Little Buddy to Cornell with his half-brother Moose. Bracy gave Schaertl immediate permission to take off the rest of the day to transport his reindeer to Ithaca.
Little Buddy became more lethargic and his temperature had risen higher by the time he arrived at Cornell, Schaertl said. Dr. Melissa Fenn, a large animal internal medicine resident at Cornell, immediately worked to stabilize Little Buddy with oxygen and fluids. He was soon diagnosed with babesiosis, a life-threatening tick-borne illness.
“The parasite was destroying Little Buddy’s red blood cells, making him severely anemic,” according to a media release story from Cornell. “Fenn and her team ordered medication to combat the parasite and monitored him closely overnight in the intensive care unit.”
A reindeer fought off a life-threatening illness thanks to the help of his friend, who donated blood. Animalkind
Little Buddy became more and more ill and because of his anemia, “there was an inadequate amount of oxygen being delivered to his tissues, a problem requiring a blood transfusion.” Luckily, Moose had made the trip as well and was a close genetic match to Little Buddy.
“We were very worried about Little Buddy. Most reindeer that come to the hospital with this disease do not survive,” Fenn said.
Moose donated a liter of blood to Little Buddy. And a day later, he started to show signs of improvement. He was able to stand and started eating again. Little Buddy and Moose started playing together by the sixth day and Little Buddy, who no longer needed oxygen, was moved out of the intensive care unit.
Little Buddy and Moose required specialized housing conditions. Cornell is suited for many large species, but not specifically reindeer. Cornell staffers retrofitted a padded horse stall, where the door could be opened to allow cooler November air to keep the reindeer comfortable. Large box fans were hung in the stall to ensure comfort, too.
“The hospital team was so creative and came up with a great solution to keep him as comfortable as possible during his recovery,” Fenn said.
After a week, doctors concluded that Little Buddy would make a full recovery. He returned home shortly afterward.
“Dr. Fenn said one of the keys to Little Buddy’s recovery was that Moose was right there with him,” Schaertl said. “He was giving him support, so that he was much more comfortable.”
The Schaertls have held three open houses in December to invite the public in to meet the reindeer and to share in the holiday cheer. As many as 300 people have stopped in during the open houses. Schaertl said people have visited from as far away as Steuben County.
Schaertl never imagined he would own reindeer. He admits they are an unusual "pet." But he asked himself, "Do you want goldfish or reindeer? Cats or reindeer?" The answer seemed pretty simple, especially since they have 20-plus acres of land in Shortsville.
"We have a little bit of property and it’s not really a farm," Schaertl said. "We have some peacocks and we have some bees and chickens and reindeer. But it’s not a working farm. It’s more like a hobby farm."
The Schaertls began exploring the idea of owning reindeer about two years ago. "We read an article in TheNew York Times about people who had reindeer down in Pennsylvania," Schaertl said. "They would take them to displays and malls around Christmastime. We thought it would be interesting and fun."
They did a lot of research and were in contact with the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, a group that laid out the necessities for housing and caring for reindeer. The group also presented the type of paperwork that needed to be filed, and since the Schaertls live in a residential area in Shortsville, they had to go to the town board for permits and variances for the reindeer. They constructed a barn to house them.
"The hardest part was finding a source for the reindeer," Schaertl said. Many states are leery and have regulations about bringing any kind of deer across state lines, because of the fear of importing animals with chronic wasting disease.
That narrowed the search specifications to New York state. They visited a few farms and breeders in New York, before finding a veterinarian in the Corning area who bred reindeer. Cary, who lives in Pine City, Chemung County, is on the board of directors for ROBA.
Believe it or not, the Schaertls spent about a year on a waiting list. Because "there is pretty high demand for reindeer," he said. "They don't breed easily in the United States and in captivity."
They brought home the two male reindeer in September. Moose and Little Buddy share the same father and were both born in early May.
The reindeer have become two of the most well-known residents in the small Ontario County community. Schaertl said they walk the reindeer a few times a week to get them socialized and used to "various distractions."
But it takes way too long to walk a mile with reindeer when people constantly stop them and want selfies with two of the area's most unusual residents.
"It's part of the fun of having the reindeer, seeing the smiles on people and seeing how other people react to them," Schaertl said. "They are becoming part of the community."
He added, "They're not like regular deer where they are skittish and run away from you. They will come right up to the fence and say hi. They don't really like to be hugged and petted, but they like to be right near you."
So why are they named Little Buddy and Moose? "We didn't want to name them after Santa's reindeer," Schaertl said. "Everyone goes with those names."
Originally, the Schaertls planned to name the reindeer after their paternal and maternal grandfathers. The Schaertls have German and Scandinavian ancestry. "But we got the reindeer and they just didn't look like old German or Scandinavian men," Schaertl said with a chuckle.
Next, they considered some cartoon-inspired names. "We're not old, but we do remember Rocky and Bullwinkle," he said.
Boris and Natasha, the cartoon villains, always referred to Rocky and Bullwinkle, the titular flying squirrel and moose, as "moose and squirrel." Moose seemingly fit the bigger of the two reindeer. He was about 30 pounds heavier than his smaller half-brother.
But it didn't suit the smaller one. "He was just this little, docile deer," Schaertl said. They had taken to referring to him as their "little buddy" and after a few weeks, the name just stuck.