MACON, Ga.—’Twas six nights before Christmas, and just like always, it was the same three questions over and over for Scott Allen, as he monitored the two reindeer he brought to a downtown Christmas light extravaganza in Macon, Georgia.
“Where’s Rudolph?” children and adults ask, eyes sparkling with enchantment as they watch his mother-daughter reindeer duo placidly munch on hay, not a red nose in sight.
“The Bahamas. It’s in his contract,” Allen answers, his mouth stern between a bushy white beard and mustache.
Silence. Every time, as the questioner ponders the answer, Allen’s eyes twinkle. He knows the next question is sure to follow.
“What are their names?”
“Comet and Cupid,” he says. Then he whispers to a reporter: “It’s always Comet and Cupid. But sometimes, I tell them one’s Ralph,” he chuckles mischievously, “just to see their eyes.”
One more question always follows.
“Can I pet them?”
“No!” Allen says, as if everyone knows the reason. “If you pet a baby reindeer, it’ll never fly!”
There are a handful of reindeer rental outfits around the country that can help bring magic to almost any Christmas event, if the party host can pay the price.
Allen has the only one in Georgia, he says.
He and the reindeer travel in style, riding in a long, modified horse trailer to wherever people are willing to pay his fee: private parties, Christmas festivals, malls, and movie sets.
How much does it cost to rent a reindeer or two? Or four, pulling an earthbound “sleigh” complete with Santa?
Well, that’s a secret that’s as closely guarded as the location of Santa’s workshop itself.
To find out, you have to submit a quote request through the Pettit Creek Farms website.
In 2017, TampaBay.com reported that the only provider of rental reindeer in Florida would make an appearance for a couple of hours at a wintry event for somewhere in the range of a cool $12,000 to $15,000.
“We’re not that much … not nearly that much,” Allen says.
The Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA) in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, maintains a registry of the animals in the United States and supports members’ efforts to raise, buy, and sell them, even use them to make a living.
There’s a common misconception that reindeer and caribou are the same animal, according to ROBA. While they’re very similar, reindeer are shorter by about 8 to 10 inches. There are color differences, too. And when measured like a horse at the point where the neck comes up out of the back, full-grown reindeer stand about 36 to 42 inches tall.
Reindeer may be among the first domesticated animals. They are referenced in a ninth-century letter to England’s Alfred the Great, king of the Saxons, from Norway’s King Ottar that mentions a herd of more than 600 fine reindeer.
Farm-raised reindeer are curious, friendly, likable animals that are easy to fence, feed, and train to pull, ROBA materials say. And while only a handful of farms provide reindeer rentals, those that do can turn a profit.
Allen’s family farm on 80 acres in Cartersville, Georgia, started as a cattle ranch owned first by his grandfather, then his dad.
His father, he says, was “a bush track jockey” who tricked the unsuspecting into betting against him by showing up with horses wearing clunky Western saddles, instead of traditional, sleek, lightweight racing saddles. Bush track is a term used to describe unsanctioned, informal horse races run in rural areas of the United States and southern Canada.
His dad put him on a horse when he was just 6 days old.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Allen says, “but my mother was furious.”
When the farm passed to his generation, Allen, who’s a 35-year farrier—horse hoof-care specialist—converted the place to raising camels and other exotics from raising cattle.
Now visitors can enjoy drive-through or hay-ride visits that allow them to hand-feed a menagerie of kangaroos, emus, capybaras, zebras, peacocks, goats, a giraffe named George, and more.
He claims to like animals, “especially with barbecue sauce.”
But all jokes aside, there’s something special about the way Allen interacts with his herd.
Deer are naturally fearful and skittish animals. With such a low spot on the animal kingdom food chain, they tend to run first and confirm the actual scariness of a situation later.
But Allen’s deer are unfazed by clamoring crowds, flashing lights, booming Christmas music, and sudden noises.
Recently, they even appeared on the roof of the Perry Lane Hotel in Savannah. How’d they get there?
“They flew!” Allen replies, a bit impatiently. “Duh!”
But an elevator may have been involved, and that’s still an impressive feat.
Reindeer antlers can stretch up and out beyond three feet, with sharp spikes on the ends. An elevator ride with two of them would be, understandably, a harrowing experience.
For the rooftop appearance, Allen donned the famous red suit for an adults-only party, the kind where ladies in super-short Santa skirts whisper their holiday hopes in his ear.
“I took one for the team there,” he says, thumping his chest.
Allen starts gentling his deer the day they’re born, soon working to expose them to a variety of sounds and sights that would terrify most animals. By the time they’re making appearances, he can, and does, literally shoot a cannon nearby and they don’t flinch.
That part of the training was inspired after the first time Allen showed up in Macon to provide pony rides to children decades ago. Things were going pretty well, he recalls. Children grinned from the backs of ponies; parents giddily snapped photos.
Then someone casually asked how the ponies would react to the cannon that was about to be fired nearby.
Allen’s eyes widened. No one had mentioned a cannon!
“Fire in the hole!” he remembers shouting wildly, as helpers snatched bewildered pint-size riders from the backs of their pint-size mounts.
Then, KABOOM!, and the ponies began to dance.
After that, Allen’s herd of traveling animals for rent began exposure training to gunshots, starting with not-so-loud guns, and working up to a cannon he keeps on his farm.
He’s learned a lot about reindeer since acquiring the foundation animals for his herd about six years ago. Allen got them from an older gentleman “with more money than the Pope” who brought them to events for a hobby.
Lesson One: They don’t like you to touch the sharp antlers that they shed each year and regrow.
Also, their personalities vary widely, just like with dogs. Some are shy; some are silly; some are super-smart, Allen says.
That’s the case with 6-year-old Lead, known as Comet when she’s out and about.
On Dec. 19 in Macon, she was accompanied by her year-old daughter, called Cupid in public.
Lead’s mother, now known as “The Original Lead,” was just as calm when she was working. She even made an appearance in the 2016 Jennifer Aniston film “Office Christmas Party.”
Allen retires his reindeer from public appearances at about age 10, when they start to show their age, and they live a life of leisure on the farm for the rest of their days, he says. They can live to about 20.
Allen’s reindeer bulls, the males, pull a sleigh equipped with wheels, but without reins or anything else controlling them. Allen calls out commands to them when he wants them to walk, trot, or gallop forward.
When he wants them to turn right, “Gee!” is the command he hollers. When he calls “Haw!” they turn left. Allen’s booming “Easy!” makes them slow to a walk, then halt.
The lady reindeer are trained to walk in front of a bright red golf-cart sleigh. They’re hitched to it, but not putting out any effort to pull it. There’s no need. It’s a “dual-fuel model sleigh,” Allen says.
“I can go total-electric, or reindeer-plus-electric, or total reindeer,” he said. “I can land in Hawaii, or I can land in Alaska. I’ve got wheels and I’ve got sleigh runners. You’ve got to be prepared. And I’m tryin’ to be green, here.”
That would be for Christmas Eve work. But for regular public appearances, “I don’t want them to pull,” he says. “When they pull, they go to hasslin’ like a dog with their tongues hanging out.”
They’re fine, he says.
“They’re not dyin’, but people start losing their minds.”
The key to training animals is to “listen to what they’re saying to you,” Allen says. “They’re always talking to you. You just have to be smart enough to understand.
“If your dog doesn’t listen, your dog is smarter than you are.”
When animals don’t do what they’ve been trained to do, it’s often not because they don’t understand, he said.
“They don’t forget. They renegotiate.”
Allen turns his attention to the adults and children in line who appear awestruck by the opportunity to stand so close to live reindeer. Only a red canvas belt stretched between black crowd-control stanchions keeps them from sidling up right next to the famous deer.
A stand-in for the real Santa is the best hope a kid has for getting his wish list to the real one, most children about Elijah Woods’s age know. The real Santa can’t possibly make it to every public appearance around the globe in late December, when there are still so many toys to finish making.
But the 7-year-old’s eyes are wide as he describes sharing his hopes for “a camouflage jacket, everything camouflage, and a punching bag” with the real Santa. The proof, he divulges, as he sucks on a candy given to him by the Big Guy, is a clue hidden on the reindeer. Specifically, it’s the jingle bells on their harnesses.
His 14-year-old cousin, Makinlee Adams, shares pictures of three pairs of Air Jordans she hopes to score, along with an Apple Watch and an iPad. “And a dirt bike!” chimes in 5-year-old Dawson Woods.
Eight-year-old Skylar Blow asks for Legos. But she’s pretty sure the reindeer on display aren’t the flying kind.
“Only the ones at the North Pole can fly,” she explains. But it was nice to have the non-flying variety there with Santa, “so the kids can be happy.”
Having reindeer present makes his job a whole lot easier, Santa confesses, before he starts the evening’s work of accepting gift requests.
“When they’re not here, that’s what everyone asks: ‘Where are your reindeer?’ I don’t want to have to lie and say, ‘Oh, they’re over there on that roof.’”
As the line of waiting families grows ever longer for the free visits with Santa, a mom sheepishly approaches Allen, who’s standing off to the side, next to the reindeer.
“He thinks you’re Santa,” she shrugs with a smile, looking down at her son, who’s staring up at Allen.
Allen looks to the left and to the right. He’s not supposed to call attention away from the Santa sitting in his red, golf-cart sleigh, just behind the reindeer.
He starts to explain that she’ll need to speak with the other Big Guy with a white beard, the one wearing the red suit tonight.
“Is it OK?” the young mom asks again, her eyes pleading now. “He really wants to tell you what he wants this year.”
Allen bends down, and with a conspiratorial grin, asks softly, “Whatcha want?”
The boy’s eyes dance, and his smile stretches wide.
“Race cars!” he blurts out.
“OK,” Allen says nodding, as the mom smiles gratefully and leads the child away.
“Happens all the time,” Allen admits.
Sometimes, when he sees a parent struggling in the grocery store with a misbehaving child, he’ll scold, “Hey! We ain’t got time for that!”
“Their eyes get wide and they straighten up,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like they’re thinking, ‘He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!’”
He often scrawls his phone number on a piece of paper, hands it to the parent, and says, “Call me if you need help. Text me first.”
And occasionally, they do.
He answers, “This is Santa. How can I help you?”
“Right there,” he chuckles, “they get religion.”
When he’s not adding magic to holiday events with his reindeer, Allen provides Nativity animals for rent for live productions, including a donkey to transport Mary, sheep and goats, and even a camel. He can provide rental lambs for Easter productions.
Caring for so many animals will cause a guy to break a sweat, often from before sunrise to well after sunset.
A lot of time, that means feeding, cleaning up, training various species to load calmly onto a trailer, wear a harness, submit to veterinary exams, even coaxing milk from a new mother reindeer, so he can supplement the baby’s diet with a bottle when necessary.
“I can milk a reindeer,” Allen says, grinning. “Not many can say that.
“But I enjoy it, it’s not work. I’m always on vacation. I get to spend time with my animals, my family.”
And as for rumors that his unusual abilities, his physical resemblance, and his penchant for speaking greetings to youngsters in about 22 languages may be more than just a coincidence? Maybe, just maybe, he’s the real deal?
“Ho, ho ho!” he bellows, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I do own the reindeer.”