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Here comes the reindeer wrangler, just in time for the holidays.

Reindeer for Rent

On a recent Thursday, a Ford truck hauling a long silvery-white trailer pulls into the dusty parking lot of Strange's Garden Center at Short Pump. The pickup has New Mexico plates, three people in the cab and a truck bed heaped with 25-pound bags of feed. The sacks are clearly labeled with brown letters: "deer chow."

The reindeer have arrived.

Jim Hassold, a Strange's employee, had called local media in hopes of getting some publicity out of the deer's arrival. But as it happened there had been an unexpected delay in Baltimore, the previous drop site. And the reindeer that were supposed to show up Wednesday are a day late getting to Richmond.

So when the truck and trailer arrive, sometime after lunch, it is without the hoped-for fanfare. Still, a cluster of people, mostly regular garden-center shoppers and their kids, stand by curiously to witness what they expect will be something of a show.

It is.

A white-haired man wearing tan pants, a flannel shirt, cowboy boots and a fedora steps down from the truck, not seeming to notice the sets of eyeballs fixed on him. He is Jack White, reindeer handler.

White is in the reindeer-leasing business. And this time of year, it's nearly impossible to catch him in one place for long.

White is a second-generation reindeer handler. His father started the business 33 years ago when he purchased six reindeer from an Eskimo in Alaska. Since then, White points out, his business, Rudolph and Co., has transported more than 1,000 reindeer from the tundra to Seminole, Texas, the site of White's reindeer ranch. He claims he tends the largest herd of reindeer currently in captivity in the United States.

Every year White spends the weeks before Christmas zigzagging across the country to deliver his furry cargo to such places as gift stores, nurseries, zoos and theme parks.

"Boost your 1998 advertising with vision and imagination!" suggests the brochure he hands out (for 2001's Christmas season). "The earlier you book, the nicer deer you will receive," the copy warns.

And White insists the demand for reindeer is high. He also says their numbers are dwindling.

Fifty years ago there were 600,000 Alaskan reindeer, White says. Today there are fewer than 15,000.

But the kids waiting to catch a glimpse of the mysterious creatures don't seem to care about marketing gimmicks or ecology. They simply want to touch the things.

White's stop at Strange's Garden Center is his only in Virginia. Here, he drops off two rented reindeer — a female named Star and a male named Patches II — and enough chow to feed them for five weeks, the amount of time that will pass before he comes to fetch them back.

Most people have never seen real live reindeer, White says. He tugs the trailer's handle a few times until it slides open. When it does the smell of hay and barn animals instantly fills the air. But it's nothing compared to the sight of the nine creatures inside.

The biggest is Bud, a bull reindeer. People plead for White to bring him out. Bud is buff-colored and his fur feels like burlap. His antlers look like naked trees. White claims he's docile. But today he seems stubborn. Finally, White coaxes him out of the trailer. White keeps Bud on a sturdy leash and encourages people to pet him. Only a few are brave enough.

Bud is enormous — nearly 800 pounds. He circles White, lifting and lowering his hefty antlers to the small crowd. A photographer looking through his lens gets too close and Bud nearly knocks him to the ground. That's enough for White. Bud's visiting time is over.

Next White pulls out a fawn. The crowd coos. It's too young to be part of the rental group, but it travels with the herd because baby animals win audiences. It is four weeks old, doe-eyed and adorable. Its name, not surprisingly, is Rudy.

A little girl, barely 3, seems at once bewildered and amused. She calls out, "Chicken!"

"He's not a chicken, he's a reindeer," White corrects the child. He tells the kids Rudy is OK to pet. His coat is the color of coffee and feels like feathers. A few children inch closer but the little girl hesitates.

"He won't bite you, honey," says White. "If he does, I'll give him to you." (The offer isn't cheap. A baby reindeer, White says, costs $3,000.)

Reindeer are rarely born this time of year, White tells the group. The young are born in the spring. If Rudy had been born then, along with the others in White's herd, he'd weigh 150 pounds by now. Instead he weighs just 35 pounds.

"He can run 35 miles per hour right now, faster than his parents," White says. Next year Rudy will be older and slower, able to be leased out like Bud and the rest. For now it appears Rudy is just along for the ride. "He's something of a fluke," White says.

After this stop, White is headed to Boston and then to Long Island, N.Y. And in a few weeks he'll be back right before Christmas, to whisk his reindeer back to their home.

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