There are only 7 reindeer in NJ, and this guy owns 2 of them
Call him one of Santa’s helpers and just like the jolly old elf himself, Mark Sopko has been very busy this Christmas season.
But it’s not toys that keep Sopko occupied through the holidays.
It’s reindeer. He’s got two of them, and as one might imagine, they’re in high demand this time of year.
“They’re wonderful. They bring all that joy around the holiday,” said Sopko of Reindeer Magic and Miracles.
Named Thunder and Jingles, they make their home year-round at Sopko’s Central Jersey farm, but spend much of their time after the arrival of Thanksgiving making appearances at local and private events, schools, parades, breakfasts with Santa, and sometimes even the occasional office Christmas party.
It’s a short-lived season. No one’s much thinking about reindeer in January, and both reindeer typically shed their antlers after the holiday — one in January and the other in April.
To many, though, reindeer are nothing less than mythical creatures. It’s the whole flying sleigh thing and, you know, the big jolly guy in the red suit.
Sopko, 49, a former zookeeper, recounts the many conversations he’s had with unbelievers. “Many times, adults ask ‘what kind of animal is it?’ It’s a reindeer, I tell them,” he said.
Still, they persist. Come on. Really. What is it?
“It’s a reindeer. That’s what it is,” Sopko responds.
And they are. Native to the Arctic and the northern reaches of Europe, these reindeer do not come from the North Pole. They come breeders across the United States, where there is a network of reindeer ranchers who also live for this time of year.
Unfortunately for Kris Kringle, their numbers have been dramatically decreasing in the wild, according to a report earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the past two decades, Arctic caribou and wild reindeer populations have dropped sharply from 4.7 million to 2.1 million grazing animals — with the largest declines in Alaska and Canada. The report blamed the declines on Arctic warming, which it said has increased the frequency of drought, affecting the quality of forage. The NOAA report also noted that longer, warmer summers can increase flies, parasites and lead to disease outbreaks in the herds.
In New Jersey, reindeer are currently banned from import, according the state Department of Environmental Protection, because of the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease. A contagious and deadly neurological disorder, Chronic Wasting Disease causes fatal damage to the central nervous system in members of the deer family.
“There are eight permitted reindeer in the state — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna, initially unaware of the legal status of Thunder and Jingles.
A further check by Hajna revealed there are actually just seven reindeer with the right paperwork to call New Jersey home, but none of them apparently belong to Santa. According to DEP records, those seven animals are owned by two individuals. Sopko is one of them.
This is a second go-round as a reindeer wrangler for Sopko, who acquired his first pair, Rocket and Fetch, back in 2012.
He delighted in their antics True to his name, Rocket liked to run around. And Fetch, well, was always going after sticks. Sadly, he said, they both succumbed to tick-borne disease, and he thought for a time about leaving the reindeer to Santa.
“That was a really tough time for us, losing the two of them,” he recalled. “It looked like the end.”
But ultimately after their deaths, he decided to bring home another pair — Thunder, a three-year-old male, and Jingles, a five-year-old female.
It’s not all fun and games. Reindeer are a lot of work, said Sopko. He’s out twice a day, feeding them and bringing them fresh water, although they prefer to eat snow than drink water when the flakes start falling.
They get fresh hay. For treats, Thunder likes to munch every now and then on a bit of lichen, which Sopko said reindeer eat like grass in their native habitat. Jingles is partial to apples. Their hooves have to be trimmed. There’s reindeer poop. And the antlers. You have to protect the antlers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture comes out every year and inspects them.
Sopko said they are very curious animals and can have playful bursts. At one event, one of his reindeer stood transfixed by a group of young dancers who were performing the Nutcracker, intrigued by what was going on. Still he said they’re very docile.
After Christmas, like Santa, their work will be done.
He’s gotten offers to appear at Christmas in July parties, but it’s too hot for the reindeer. They get the summer off. During the warm weather, their shelter is in a grove of evergreen trees and he has fans to keep them cool. If he has to transport them in the summer, their trailer has an air conditioner.
“They’re very pampered,” he said.