Cody Meyer from North Pole FFA walks Dasher at Santa Claus House in Alaska. Photo by Laurie Gerber.
When it comes to reindeer-related facts and North Pole folklore, Alaska FFA State President Cody Meyer possesses almost encyclopedic knowledge. “It is Donder and Blitzen,” he explains. “Many people think it is ‘Donner.’ But Donder is the Germanized Dutch word for thunder, and Blitzen for lightning. So, Santa technically has thunder and lightning heading his team.”
Meyer knows the famous reindeer crew well — or rather their reasonable facsimiles with which he works. This is his second Christmas season at the legendary Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska. It’s the home Santa and Mrs. Claus (the late Con and Nellie Miller) established in 1952 — the same one that national and international media feature every December.
In addition to its acclaimed year-round gift shop, Santa Claus House attracts throngs of tourists with its high-profile herd of reindeer and Antler Academy, where visitors can enjoy a petting zoo experience and tours from Memorial Day through mid-September.
This time of year, Meyer swaps his beloved blue jacket for an ugly Christmas sweater, and his public speaking skills land on the ears of excited kids lined up to see Santa. Meyer fields their many reindeer-specific questions and then ushers them to St. Nick when it’s their turn. But he still visits the storied team that pulls the sleigh and helps trim their hooves and administer vaccinations and other minor medical procedures.
Meyer admits that working in the extreme cold took some getting used to, unlike the reindeer that are perfectly adapted for the climate. He says they maintain a high body temperature and wear about a 2-inch covering of body fat beneath their dense, double coat. And their undercoat is so soft and fine, people are now learning to make yarn from it. “Reindeer have 16,000 hairs on every square inch of their body, whereas there are about 16,000 hairs on the human head,” he adds.
Memorizing such details comes from countless tours he’s led at Antler Academy and the 200 hours he’s helped care for its featured creatures as part of his supervised agricultural experience. The 20-year-old member from the North Pole FFA also spent a semester in the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, learning about herd management and reindeer health, nutrition and behavior.
“The ones at Santa Claus House are pretty well-trained, but at the Reindeer Research Program, we had to deal with rutting bulls that are highly aggressive,” he says. “We actually had to carry pepper spray. My boss got pinned against a fence by one of them.”
The bulls can be quite stubborn, and they tip the scales at 350 to 450 pounds. But some guests don’t fully comprehend reindeer are wild.
“I think the craziest thing we’ve had was someone tried to set their 9-month-old baby on the back of one of the reindeer,” Meyer says. “It can be kind of hard trying to teach some people how to act around large animals. There are kids that start out super-excited and then get in and start screaming and crying, and others who are completely fearless. They’ll go up underneath their heads and start hugging them.”
Though unsure of his eventual career, Meyer enjoys his occupation now. “I love meeting new people from all over the world, and working with livestock is my passion; it’s just my thing,” he says with a slight laugh. “But I always wonder what people are going to think when they read my very unique resume: works with reindeer at Santa Claus House in North Pole.”