MARION — Rudolph likes to play with his food. Among his favorite edible toys are carrots — the treat many children around the world will leave out for him tonight, next to milk and cookies for Santa.
But he really takes special delight in raw oatmeal. On a Dec. 14 visit to Summit Pointe Senior Living in Marion, the moment his caretaker placed a bowl of food in his pen, he dumped it over.
“They really do love oatmeal,” said Jodi Rae Philipp, resplendent in her Mrs. Claus attire for the event. She and her husband, John, operate 2-Jo’s Farm near Van Horne, the Iowa home for Rudolph and several relatives.
“He has a special mixture of food to make sure he gets all the (nutrients),” she said. “They’re an animal that migrates, so there’s quite a few things we have to try to include in their diet, but the oatmeal is truly a treat, so we put a teeny little bit in and mix it up with their other stuff.”
Rudolph threw his food onto the ground so he could root around for it like he would in the wild. “He’ll dig through and eat the oatmeal first,” Philipp said.
Reindeer also like hay with a lot of alfalfa in it, she noted, as well as the green grass that was still carpeting Eastern Iowa lawns in mid-December. They also like pumpkins, apples and apple leaves. The widespread hoofs that give them traction in North Pole snow and ice also are good for smashing open fruit.
Carrots don’t smash, though, so this Rudolph plays with carrots before munching them.
“We actually have one in the trailer, and it’s a whole, huge carrot,” Philipp said. “He’ll carry on and nibble on that carrot forever. It doesn’t come apart as easy as a pumpkin or an apple.”
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Aaron O’Neil, 6, of Marion, will be leaving out a carrot for Santa’s reindeer tonight. But he scrunched up his nose when he found out they like oatmeal. “That’s kinda weird,” he said.
He also was surprised to hear that reindeer really do like carrots. “I also heard they like candy canes,” he added.
Aaron hadn’t seen a reindeer in real life until coming to the Summit Pointe event.
“The antlers are very big,” he said. He thought they would be shorter — and the tail would be longer.
Seeing a reindeer also was a new experience for Avah Sulzbacher, 5, of Cedar Rapids, who thought he was pretty cool. She even made some reindeer food to leave out for Rudolph tonight. And then she and her baby brother, Enzo, were off to have their photo taken with Santa (John Philipp) in the sleigh he landed by the front door at Summit Pointe. (It arrived by a truck pulling Rudolph’s trailer, to save Rudolph’s energy for tonight’s big trip, Jodi Rae Philipp said.)
Summit Pointe resident Bernice Holub, 89, on the other hand, has seen reindeer before, and was thrilled to have her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren around her for the recent afternoon festivities.
“I think it’s very special,” she said.
Shelly O’Neal, Summit Pointe’s life enrichment coordinator, echoed that sentiment. “It brings the families out, and that’s so nice. They get the generations together and take pictures and kick the holiday off.”
She’s new to her position, so this was the first time she had seen a reindeer in real life.
“Rudolph is very cute,” she said. “I didn’t expect the antlers to have fur on them.”
His antlers still have part of their velvety coating, but he’s started to scrape that off before shedding his horns. Both male and female reindeer have horns, Jodi Rae Philipp said.
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She and her husband have been taking their reindeer out for visits for 17 years. Their farm had been a rescue and retirement place for animals, and making reindeer appearances and running a camp for kids helped fund that operation. The couple no longer run the rescue aspect, but still travel extensively with reindeer, and have three living on their farm. They did have five, but two died.
“They don’t live as long in captivity as they do when they’re in the wild,” she said.
Known as caribou in the wild, northern parts of the globe are home to large herds. Reindeer are domesticated caribou, Philipp said, and the couple get their reindeer from Canada.
“They’re out of their element here,” she said, but can live to be 12 to 15 years old.
The Philipps work hard to keep their reindeer healthy. They are members of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA) and are registered through the state veterinarian’s office in Des Moines. The state veterinarian visits their Benton County farm, but the local veterinarian also takes care of the couple’s horses and reindeer.
Jodi Rae Philipp is Rudolph’s trainer, and he turns his head at the sound of her voice and will walk with her on a leash. And even though reindeer don’t like to be petted and cuddled, he’s still affectionate with his keepers.
“We do get some kisses and nose times, so it’s nice,” she said.
He also has his own enclosure where he can dash, dance and prance to keep in shape for his big night.
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