Finland’s Reflecting Reindeer Plan … And How It Turned Out

Once upon a time, there was a reindeer. It was a very special reindeer because part of its body glowed brightly in the night. If it weren’t for that unnatural light source, Christmas might never happen.

The glowing reindeer was the only thing that could prevent the specter of a Christmas morning with a bloody, broken corpse under the evergreen tree.

Whoa…. That story went decidedly dark, didn’t it? Not the traditional Christmas Eve story you were counting on?

Well, for starters, it isn’t a mythical tale of events that took place only in a child’s imagination. Nor is it a morbid reprisal of the Christmas song “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” This is the true tale of a government’s ambitious endeavors to keep Christmas safe for reindeer and motorists with a little inspiration from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Finland and reindeer are inseparable. No, it’s not because they are both imaginary things, despite the ongoing speculation that Finland doesn’t really exist. About 5,600 reindeer herders are responsible for more than 200,000 reindeer throughout the country. The land used for reindeer husbandry covers one-third of Finland’s territory.

Because of the vast numbers of reindeer, inevitably, they will occasionally wander onto roads. As many as 4,000 reindeer are killed each year through collisions with cars. This not only ruins Christmas for the reindeer but since an adult weighs as much as a grand piano, it messes things up for motorists, as well.

With Finland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, most of the winter is spent in darkness. In northern Finland, the sun sets in late November and won’t be seen again until mid-January. During this long period of darkness, reindeer collisions skyrocket. If only there were a way to help drivers spot the huge creatures.

Finnish authorities hit upon a solution. Taking a cue from the most famous reindeer of all time, the government instituted a program to make reindeer easier to see in the dark. Unable to come up with an effective way to make the animals’ noses glow brightly, they focused instead on the antlers. Reindeer herders were encouraged to coat their animals’ antlers with reflective paint, hoping this would allow motorists to easily spot the creatures before a collision became unavoidable.

There were just a couple of itsy-bitsy problems with the idea. For one thing, many motorists reported seeing the reflective antlers, but unable to see anything else, mistook the sight for construction workers with reflective vests. The drivers assumed any person with the sense to be wearing a reflective vest would see the headlights of an approaching car and would not suddenly run into the middle of the road. Unfortunately, by the time the drivers realized the light came from a large animal, it was often too late to stop.

Another problem with the plan might not seem obvious to any of us who do not live in a country that is heavily populated with reindeer. If you do happen to live in such a place, you probably have already said, “But wait a second…. Most reindeer lose their antlers well before Christmas!”

Alas, that is true. All reindeer shed their antlers each year. Males drop their antlers in late November or early December. The same is true for female reindeer unless they happen to be pregnant. Expectant mother reindeer retain their antlers until their calves are born in May.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pregnant reindeer retain their antlers longer because of the superpower known as motherhood. It isn’t nearly inconvenient and uncomfortable enough to carry around for over 7 months a baby reindeer that will weigh as much as 17 pounds (7.7 kg) when it is pushed out; mama reindeer have to show the world that they can also carry on with a 33-pound (15 kg) bulk of antlers on their heads. It should also be noted that since all the pictures of Santa and his reindeer show the animals with antlers, we can conclude that they pull the sleigh all over the world while pregnant. Keep that in mind, gentlemen, if you think you are entitled to a bit of a rest because of all you have done over the holidays.)

(SECOND EDITOR’S NOTE: Another exception to the rule about reindeer losing their antlers pertains to males that have been castrated. Try as we might, we are utterly incapable of coming up with any way of discussing that phenomenon three days before Christmas unless we let the Grinch out of his cage, so we’ll leave that alone for now.)

You may, by now, have noticed a wee bit of a flaw in the reflective antler program. During the darkest periods of the year, most reindeer are antler-less. In other words, the nice reflective paint jobs are scattered throughout the frozen tundra, mystifying a wolverine or two and being gnawed on by a bunch of wolves.

The result of the reflective reindeer remedy was that the number of reindeer vs. automobile incidents went from about 4,000 per year to… well…. about 4,000 per year.

On a positive note, Rudolph’s nose remains untarnished, and Blitzen and Dasher aren’t due to go into labor until December 28.

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