Comet was already an old reindeer when I first arrived, but none the less he was still a very visible member of the herd. When our male reindeer get to about 7 or 8, there is a tendency for them to spend more and more time over at our farm where Tilly sees them daily but us lot, based here at the Centre in Glenmore, do so less often. Comet was already 12 when I first met him, but he still spent plenty of time here on a regular basis as he was such a popular character.
Comet was a big, white reindeer, born in 1995, the third calf from his mum Ferrari. Ferrari herself was a very memorable reindeer as she didn’t grow any antlers until she reached the age of 9, when she decided to sprout one! That was enough though, and even though she lived until just shy of 17, she never bothered to grow more than one antler a year. She was also a fabulous breeding female, producing 11 calves in her lifetime. This trait runs throughout her family lines, which form a substantial number of reindeer in our herd today.
But I digress. Comet was the loveliest reindeer that you can possibly imagine, tame, friendly, polite and somewhat like a teddy bear. Reindeer in general are not a cuddly animal; they happily tolerate being handled but never seek out affection in the way, for example, a dog might, despite having been domesticated for as long. It’s the reason we have a ‘hands-off’ approach with our reindeer, we handle them enough to make sure they are all happy being in such close proximity to humans, but we never put them in a position where they can be petted against their wishes. On the hill it’s the tamest that come to hand-feed while the shyer have the choice to hang back, and out on Christmas tour they are always provided with enough space to keep out of reach of the public. We’re frequently asked if we can bring a reindeer to the side of the pen to be stroked, and the answer is always ‘no’. If they choose to do so themselves that is fine, but it has to be their choice, on their terms.
I digress again – keeping to the subject in hand is not always my strong point. Back to it… Comet was unusual in that he seemed to be completely happy to have a cuddle, and indeed we all took advantage of this regularly – there’s nothing quite like putting your arms around the neck of a reindeer and burying your nose in their hair. Most reindeer would respond with a huff and pull away, but not Comet. He is also responsible for bringing us Paul, our twice yearly volunteer who has been coming for a fortnight at a time for years now (and fixing everything we break) – as he put his nose on Paul’s shoulder (Paul was sitting down, I hasten to add, Comet wasn’t that big…) and leant there for the entirety of a Hill Trip, back in 1998! Paul was hooked on reindeer from then on and 19 years later is still coming to help us out, and thank god, as he is a master joiner… I can hear the power drill whining away as I type – Paul is in residence and mending something.
One of my best memories of Comet is from the first week that I started here, when Tilly and I took two adult reindeer (one being Comet) and two 6 month old calves out for a walk in Glenmore in order to get the previously unhandled calves used to walking on a halter. On this occasion I can remember squeaking frantically to Tilly as we jogged along towards the Forestry Centre next door as Comet danced, spinning around and bouncing; letting off steam. I was hanging on for dear life but not doing a very good job, until Tilly prudently took Comet off me and gave me her (less excited) reindeer instead. Now I can easily handle such a full of beans reindeer, but as a wet-behind-the-ears herder, I was utterly out of my depth. It was a very steep learning curve!
Within a couple of years after that occasion Comet was well into his old age, and such behaviour was behind him. He lived to the grand old age of nearly 17, and although I saw him less regularly in his doddery old man phase, I still had a ‘Comet Cuddle’ each time I met him again.