‘Tis the season when the phones are ringing madly at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program.
“It happens every year,” said Greg Finstad, manager of the RRP, in between calls from radio stations and newspaper reporters all around the country and Canada requesting interviews.
“They see reindeer as mythical animals that people made up for Christmas,” Finstad said, shaking his head. “They call me to get the real story. And the real story is much more interesting than the magical animals that pull Santa around. They are amazing animals that thrive in the most inhospitable places on earth. It’s dark and cold and their food is two feet under the snowpack. They are able to dig through and survive.”
Finstad is duly impressed that over thousands of years, man has developed husbandry to care for these particular animals. “It doesn’t make logistical sense to raise another type of livestock on a large scale in the north,” he said.
Reindeer are important to Alaskans in a bigger way than mere transportation for the Jolly Old Elf, Finstad asserts. “We see reindeer as meat. To think of them hooked up to a sleigh would be like hooking up cows or pigs to Santa’s sleigh.”
“We have one of the most insecure food systems and we import most of our food,” Finstad said. “We need to produce more of our own food.”
Those are the points Finstad tries to make during his numerous December interviews. Reporters and radio DJs inevitably ask the difference between reindeer and caribou. Finstad patiently explains that they are different subspecies. Because they are migratory, caribou are leaner with longer legs. Reindeer are much more sedentary, have a more robust body shape with shorter legs and a flatter face. When herded or chased, caribou spread out and scatter, while reindeer gather into a cohesive unit.
“I say the same things every year,” Finstad said. “People ask the same questions but it’s a great opportunity for outreach and to let people know that there is a university that does research on reindeer.”
RRP maintains a research herd at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm and works extensively with the Native herders on the Seward Peninsula. Challenges to reindeer as a food product include infrastructure issues, no roads to get the meat out of the Nome area and lack of slaughterhouses. The greatest concern recently has been predator attacks. Bears and wolves have wiped out entire herds, Finstad said. “It’s a big problem.”
Most questions start with an emphasis on Christmas, and Finstad proceeds to steer the conversations away from that and toward reindeer as a meat animal. “I just tell them reindeer are real,” he said. “They are a domestic animal that has been extremely important to people in the north for thousands of years and they play an important role in the food system. They are docile, gentle creatures, beautiful animals perfectly comfortable in 40 below and they taste good.”
Reindeer meat is low in fat and high in protein. When questioned about the taste, Finstad’s answer is: “Once you have had reindeer you will never go back to beef.”
The meat is high in myoglobin, making it much different to cook than beef. Because of that Finstad and his researchers worked with the culinary school at Kapiolani Community College, University of Hawaii, to develop gourmet recipes for reindeer meat. The cookbook, which will be published in 2013 by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, is targeted for high-end restaurants and people who want to incorporate reindeer meat into their diet.
“When the state of Alaska and most of North America are covered in reindeer then we’ve done our job,” Finstad said.
“Someday everyone will be able to buy reindeer in the grocery store.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org