WINSLOW — It was a Christmas miracle, one that just so happened on Easter Sunday this year. And it happened at a petting zoo.

“It was kind of a surprise,” said Ed Papsis, a co-owner of the Pony X-Press traveling petting zoo. The surprise came in the form of an unexpected birth at the farm. Specifically, a new reindeer, a dark brown female calf, the first such birth in the state in over 20 years.

“We had purchased a couple this fall to add to our herd and they actually had bred,” Papsis said. “So we weren’t positive when we bought them they were bred.”

Papsis said this is not the normal time of year for reindeer to give birth either. They are usually born later in April and the spring. The calf was born April 1, Easter Sunday, and was 12 pounds when she was born.

For a while, the Pony X-Press had the only reindeer in the state, an 18-year-old female named Freeway who passed away in 2016. The traveling petting zoo was later able to add two more, a male named Bo and a female named Anna, and then another female. Papsis, who owns the petting zoo along with Candis Veilleux, said they now have a “whopping total” of one male and four females.

The newborn reindeer has yet to be named, Papsis said, as they are waiting to see what her personality is like. However, it’s obvious they will name the calf something festive, he said. The calf’s mother’s name is Cocoa and her grandmother’s name is Holly.

Though Pony X-Press has made a reputation traveling with the reindeer during the holidays, the animals, also known as caribou in North America, have become a rarity in Maine. Despite the Pine Tree State’s long winters and rural, wooded landscape, no wild reindeer inhabit the state, and Pony X-Press has the only domesticated ones around.

Ed Papsis of Pony X-Press zoo holds a wiggly four-day-old female reindeer calf born on Easter Sunday at the Winslow farm. Papsis said the calf is the first reindeer born in Maine in the last 20 years. The calf’s mother, Cocoa, looks on at right. Staff photo by David Leaming

Papsis said he knows of at least one person who privately owns a reindeer, but there are major restrictions on displaying the reindeer. Papsis said his farm was the only one he knew of in Maine licensed by the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have and display reindeer.

The Pony X-Press petting zoo is home to a gaggle of other animals, including American alligators, three-banded armadillos and alpacas. In recent years, Pony X-Press has brought the reindeer to L.L. Bean for the annual Northern Lights celebration. They also go to schools, nursing homes and tree lighting ceremonies. This year, they traveled to the Travis Mills Foundation.

“You’re never quite sure where we’re gonna turn up with ’em,” Papsis said.

The zoo has had different animals on display since 1991, Papsis said, and they have had reindeer for the last 20 years. But the size of their herd is indicative of just how hard it is to grow a population of reindeer in Maine.

“It’s impossible,” Papsis said

Reindeer are susceptible to a disease called Chronic Wasting Disease, an infectious disease transmitted among members of the deer family. It is a progressive disease and is always fatal, with symptoms such as weight loss, difficulty of movement and behavioral changes. Papsis said it was the equivalent of Mad Cow Disease for deer.

“For a while it was shut down nationwide, that you could not move any type of deer across state lines,” Papsis said.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issues permits to possess reindeer. According to the department, non-native cervids such as reindeer fall under different jurisdictions in the state. According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, reindeer are not allowed to be farmed under their captive cervid program. Cervids are mammals in the deer family.

Over the years, the petting zoo has worked with the state to get more reindeer for their herd. Two years ago they finally got clearance. The reindeer they have now came from Tennessee and New York State.

“The other problem is finding them,” Papsis said. “Right now in the U.S. and Canada, I’ve been told there are less than 100 people keeping them. Very few people are actively selling.”

In order to import a reindeer, the farm it comes from has to be thoroughly vetted medically for the previous five years, Papsis said.

NO MORE REINDEER GAMES

According to a report published by Matthew LaRoche, the superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, an organization that is part of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, records show that Maine was once home to thousands of caribou, and the forests of the Allagash were home to the largest species, the woodland caribou, which could weigh up to 700 pounds in adulthood.

A four-day-old female reindeer calf nudges her mother, Cocoa, at the Pony X-Press zoo in Winslow on Wednesday. The calf was born on Easter Sunday at the Winslow farm and is the first reindeer born in Maine in the last 20 years, according to owner Ed Papsis. Staff photo by David Leaming

“Historically, woodland caribou inhabited the forests of the northern United States from Maine to Washington State. Today the woodland caribou is one of the most critically endangered mammals in the U.S.,” LaRoche writes. “There is a tiny population in northern Idaho and northwest Washington, of about 40 animals.”

His report says that Maine had a healthy population of caribou into the late 1800s, but the animals’ numbers were largely reduced by hunting because the meat was in high demand. The caribou moved in large herds and were vulnerable to hunters. They would not run away when shot at but instead would run in circles, making them easy targets.

“It has been illegal to hunt caribou in Maine since 1899. Before that, they were one of the state’s most important big game animals, attracting ‘sports’ from all over the country. Ironically, the person credited with killing the last legal caribou in Maine was the infamous Fly Rod Crosby, the first registered Maine Guide.”

LaRoche writes there were reports of a small herd in the Katahdin region until 1914, and that in 1911 a small herd was seen at Burtland Brook along the Allagash River. The two most recent efforts to reintroduce caribou into the Maine wild, one in 1963 and again in 1993, were colossal failures, LaRoche writes.

“In both of these efforts, the Maine caribou were reintroduced from the Avalon Peninsula herd in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1963, 23 caribou were released in Baxter State Park. They dispersed after 3 or 4 years and were never seen again. In 1993, 12 caribou were again released in Baxter State Park. This time the caribou were fitted with radio collars. They all died or migrated out of the area.”

LaRoche concludes that Maine will never again be able to support a caribou herd because the woodlands have changed from old growth to a relatively younger forest. Additionally, fragmentation of the woods with camp lots, woods roads, and the widespread presence of whitetail deer serve as barriers. The deer can carry a brain worm that is no threat to them, but is deadly to moose and caribou.

According to a report from the New York Times in 1990, the Maine Caribou Project Inc. — a group that was working to reintroduce caribou back into the Maine wild — reported that their project had failed and they had abandoned their effort due to financial constraints trying to transplant the caribou. The group released 32 caribou in Maine, and in 1990 25 were confirmed dead, including 12 killed by bears and coyotes. Four calves were born in the wild. Two died of unknown causes; the others were killed by a bear and a bobcat.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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