Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How angry should we be about Valley Fair Mall's live reindeer exhibit?

Posted By on November 26, 2014, 10:00 AM

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Let's imagine for a moment that you're a reindeer—hairy, muscular, with a nice fuzzy rack—and it's Christmas and you're hanging out in a shopping mall full of screaming babies and teenagers. Are you revelling in the holiday cheer? Or do you wish you were dead? These are some of the issues surrounding Valley Fair Mall's recently installed live reindeer exhibit. 

The free holiday-themed petting zoo allows kids and adults to get up close and personal with Santa's sleigh pullers, and features two living, breathing reindeer: a mother and daughter named Dasher and Prancer. 

Since its debut on Nov. 21, the public response has been a mixed bag of "The kids would love this!" to "Why the hell are there reindeer in a mall?" The emphasis has been more on the latter. You can read all the comments here, if you want. 

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Despite threats from customers to withhold their coveted holiday dollars from the West Valley shopping hub, Teresa Patrick, marketing manager for Valley Fair Mall, doesn't seem too worried.

"The owner [of the reindeer] warned us that some people would be genuinely upset," she says. "It's like, if you see a dog kenneled up all day, you feel bad for the dog. But so far, the positive response has way outnumbered the negative."

She also points out that the reindeer are in good hands with the Valley Fair Mall staff.

"We have a pen outside that they also get to go out to," Patrick says. "We also had to take a course on taking care of the animals. We have a team of people that care for them, they're called our Reindeer Wranglers, and there's a veterinarian that is on call if anything happens." 

"The majority of the people really like it," Patrick says. "Believe me, everyone one of us here loves animals, and we don't believe in animal cruelty. We're so excited to have them. We pet them. We brush them. They are very well taken care of."  

But the negative reaction to the exhibit doesn't seem to be centered on whether or not the reindeer are fed, watered and brushed, but rather that a bustling shopping mall atmosphere is no place for a pair of deer.   

"Let's keep in mind that these aren't truly domesticated animals," says Jeremy Beckham, a spokesman for Animal Rescue Media Education. "These are caribou. They are wild animals and they've evolved to live in arctic and subarctic climates, and they're being confined to a 15-foot-by-15-foot pen. It's about the size of my living room. Can you imagine what this environment is going to be like on Black Friday?"

Reindeer, or Rangifer tarandus, are resilient animals. Their hollow fur allows them to withstand temperatures that range from 100 degrees to negative 85 degrees Fahrenheit. But its not their resilience to extreme weather that concerns Beckham. "These are prey animals," he says. "They are easily spooked, and they want to seek refuge and get away from people. They don't have that option here. A shopping mall can't provide a humane environment for caribou. Here, they're confined to a pen outside a Megaplex Theater." 

The reindeer's owner, Matt Shandle, disagrees. He owns M&T Christmas Trees in Sandy, and has been raising reindeer on his farm for the past 12 years. He currently has a herd of 17 reindeer. 

"These reindeer are no different than you having a dog," Shandle says. "They're domesticated. They are not wild deer. They have been domesticated for many many generations. They've actually been domesticated longer than horses. We raise them strictly for pets. We do not eat our deer like a lot of reindeer farmers do. We do not want to hurt our deer, and we don't want anyone else to hurt our deer. There's a good chance that this is coming from a very small group of PETA people that think they know everything there is to know about reindeer, but they really don't know a whole lot about 'em."  

Shandle was profiled by KSL back in 2011 for being one of the first farmers to successfully use artificial insemination methods with reindeer. He's a firm believer that his reindeer are better off on his farm (and being rented for shopping malls), than they are in the wild. 

"Have you ever watched video of wolves feeding on animals in Alaska?" Shandle says. "The people that complain about this sort of thing, they really need to stop and take a deep breath. If they can handle watching that, I think they would probably want all reindeer taken out of Alaska and domesticated because it's a horrible thing. Reindeer in the wild, they don't just get slaughtered and eaten—they get eaten one bite at a time and sometimes they'll be alive for up to two weeks as the predator eats them slowly because they like fresh meat."  

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Putting live reindeer on display for the holidays isn't anything new. Shadle's reindeer can also be found at places like Thanksgiving Point and Hogle Zoo. So, why does everyone specifically care about the reindeer at Valley Fair Mall? 

"First of all, I'm not familiar with any shopping mall in the area that has reindeer inside. I could be wrong, if City Creek mall or Thanksgiving Point have reindeer too, then I think that is a problem," Beckham says. "I'm guessing the reindeer at Thanksgiving Point, at least they're outdoors. These reindeer at Valley Fair Mall, they're surrounded on all four sides by people and children reaching between the bars." 

Though Beckham is not pleased with the recent exhibit, he's confident that the mall will think twice about this in the future.  
"I think [Valley Fair Mall] management is being reasonable about this and they're listening to both sides. I think they might do the right thing," he says. "At a minimum I hope they don't bring it back next year."  

The reindeer display will be open at Valley Fair Mall until Dec. 24. 

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