Milan Shipka is studying the reproductive biology of reindeer throughout their 215-day gestation, with the goal of improving management of the animals as livestock.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska He has a long beard, wears a red parka and hangs out with reindeer just a short sleigh ride from an interior Alaska town called North Pole. That's where the resemblance ends.
"I have nothing against Santa Claus. I love Christmas," animal researcher Milan Shipka said. "But reindeer meat is healthy and it tastes good, and most people don't think of Santa eating his reindeer when he's done on the 26th."
Not that Shipka plans to dine on the 17 pregnant reindeer he's studying at a University of Alaska Fairbanks research center.
The halter-broke reindeer were a bit skittish when Shipka led visitors into the animals' large pen at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station. But within minutes their gregarious nature won out and they surrounded the visitors. A reindeer named Nymph nudged one of them in the leg.
"She's an inquisitive girl," Shipka said. "And a bit forward."
Shipka is studying the reproductive biology of reindeer throughout their 215-day gestation, with the goal of improving management of the animals as livestock.
Siberian reindeer were introduced to Alaska Natives in the Western Alaska peninsula in the late 1800s to supply an alternative to then-dwindling numbers of subsistence animals, including caribou and whales, said wildlife biologist Bill Hauer. He manages the 134-acre station, operated by the university's Institute of Arctic Biology.
Reindeer meat today is prized for its rich flavor, tenderness and low fat content. Reindeer in Alaska also have been used to carry passengers, supplies and mail.
Ecologist Greg Finstad, manager of the university's Reindeer Research Program, said there are more than 25 roving herds on the peninsula and several Alaska islands, as well as a handful of fenced operations in the interior.
Reindeer are a domesticated subspecies of caribou, generally shorter, rounder and less skittish than their wild cousins. However, scores of them have run off with the wild Western Arctic caribou herd.
As many as 225,000 caribou spend winters in the region, according to Finstad, who has worked with herders to study the fugitive reindeer problem, monitoring some of the animals with radio and satellite collars.
"We've found a high mortality rate in those animals that left. Reindeer don't survive very long in a caribou world," where they are subject to rigors they never had to endure as domestic animals, he said.
The researchers are working to develop supplemental feed for the animals using mostly Alaska-grown ingredients. They're also studying how diet affects the quality of meat and the effect of climate change on the herds. University scientists have collaborated with researchers from Norway, Sweden and Finland -- where reindeer are raised by the Sami indigenous people.
Reindeer meat is occasionally cooked at a test kitchen on campus, sometimes rated by the public in consumer surveys or analyzed by an evaluation panel trained to measure such factors as taste, flavor, tenderness and juiciness.
"You have to have a very sensitive palate to qualify for the panel," Finstad said. "It's very much like wine tasting, involving smell and taste."
Reindeer roast has become a Christmas tradition for Finstad's family.
"I call it rump of Rudolph," he said. "My wife says, 'Don't say that around all the nieces and nephews, otherwise they won't eat it.'"
Source: Associated Press