LA RUE, Ohio — Dan and Linda Downs knew very little about reindeer nine years ago when they bought their first pair — Fritz and Flossie. It was one of the first “live” additions to their Christmas display, and they would spend several more years getting to know these legendary creatures.
Today, the Downs keep seven reindeer at their Marion County farm, and one at the Columbus Zoo, and reindeer are at the center of the Downs’ Christmas display.
Last year, Jack Hanna, Columbus Zoo director emeritus, made a visit to the Downs’ farm, where he spoke and signed autographs. About 900 people came.
Christmas Town. This year, the Downs’ are opening a new exhibit called Christmas Town, which will feature a newly constructed barn where guests will visit with the reindeer, while also enjoying refreshments, crafts and live music.
Christmas Town will be offered each weekend of December and visitors should plan on registering before their visit, the Downs said, so they can plan for large crowds and parking.
The Downs have been decorating at their farm — now called Pine Acres Reindeer Farm — since 1979. After some road congestion and minor traffic accidents in front of the farm, they decided the exhibit needed to be offered in either a drive-through fashion, or on foot.
During the day, they manage Diversified Insurance Services — an insurance company with locations in Marion and Forest. As insurance agents, the Downs have an insider’s knowledge of what it takes to insure their Christmas display, which poses an added risk because of the reindeer.
Although “very docile” most of the time, the male reindeer are often aggressive during the rut and can use their antlers against their handlers. The reindeer can also spook or jolt without warning, which can cause bodily injury if the handler isn’t prepared.
“With us being around them 24/7, we’ve learned about their habits,” Linda Downs said. The public, though, might think the deer look “cute,” but underestimate the animals’ potential.
“They (public) didn’t realize if that animal had been eating some hay and raised up, you could get your arm broken,” she continued.
Each of the reindeer has its own name and most are Christmas names like Tinsel, Gum Drop, Dancer and Jingle Bell. Linda said most of the deer react to their name when it’s called, and she insists she can even kiss most of the females — because they’re so tame.
“They’re kind of like a horse,” Dan Downs said, adding the deer will follow him and his wife inside the pen, and that they could be trained to pull a sleigh.
The farm does offer horse and carriage rides, pulled by horses. That service is provided by a local neighbor, Rich Wolf, who also is in charge of transporting the reindeer to Christmas events across the state.
The reindeer are fenced in with an eight-foot fence. But the height is mostly to keep native whitetail deer from mixing and potentially introducing new bacteria and disease. Linda Downs said the whitetail are very curious about the reindeer, and frequently walk up to the fence.
The reindeer eat a feed mixture similar to horse sweet feed, and they are especially fond of steam rolled oats. Each time they’re fed is a time for the Downs’ to interact with the reindeer and check on their health.
“When you have animals, you can either just shut them up and feed them and that’s it or you can interact,” Dan Downs said. “I think their personality is a reflection with how we interact with them.”
One of the challenges is managing the antlers. Because they grow several feet in length and include many curves and points, they can become entangled in the fence, or in trees. Just like cattle with horns, the antlers can break and can bleed if they’re still in the velvet phase — when blood is still nourishing the antlers.
The money the Downs make is invested back into the business, and they treat it as a family retirement hobby. The past couple years they’ve attended 64 events with their reindeer each year, in about a six-month period.
They hire part-time help as needed. And they’re happy that their neighbor is taking over the road trips, because it will free their own schedules to do more at the farm, and in their careers.
“We just kind of dabbled at it (at first) and then the business got so big where you really couldn’t dabble at it any more,” Dan Downs said. “And it really came to the point where something had to give because my time was being taken away from the insurance agency.”
Although they spend all year preparing, the Downs said it’s worth it when December rolls around, and they get to see the fun on families’ and children’s faces.