— About 3,000 miles south of the North Pole, on the windswept prairie of central Illinois, Mark and Julie Hardy and their 16 reindeer are awaiting Santa and the long winter's nap that follows his visit.
Now is the busiest time of year at Hardy's Reindeer Ranch. Until it closes for the season Dec. 28, tourists of all ages will flock to the ranch to watch, feed and pet the reindeer, which, as the Christmas carol "Up on the Housetop" suggests, really do "click, click, click" as they walk.
It all started in 1995 when Mark Hardy, a former dairy farmer who raises Christmas trees, and his wife, Julie, a sales manager, decided to buy two reindeer from a Michigan breeder. The two reindeer, they thought, would lure customers to their 4 acres of trees just south of Rantoul, about 15 miles north of Champaign. But, according to Julie they were "swept away" by the presence of the animals, Mistletoe and Klondike, and soon set out to buy more.
In 1997, they visited a ranch in Alaska and bought 13 more reindeer, which were put in specially built shipping crates and flown on two Delta 747s to Cincinnati, a trip that the Hardys like to say proved that reindeer can fly. From there, the Hardys drove them to their ranch.
"It was an adventure," remembers Julie.
But it was worth it.
"I absolutely adore these animals," she said. "They have unique personalities, big eyes and gorgeous faces. I love them."
Mark Hardy said the reindeer are similar to cows in size, behavior and grazing habits, but they are unique in their own way. Reindeer are cousins of caribou. Both males and females have antlers that they shed in winter and early spring, and then they grow back over just a few months' time. They sport a lush white, tan and brown winter coat that keeps them comfy to 50 degrees below zero, and have hooves that adapt to grazing in the spring mud as well as winter's ice and snow.
And the clicking noise? It is caused by a tendon that rubs over a bone in their foot, Hardy said.
"They prance. They twist and sort of leap," he said. "They push each other around. They play reindeer games. The more you observe them, the more you can understand all of the references to them in the Christmas stories."
Visitors can observe the reindeer from a fence. Or they can take a $4 tour that includes a talk about the reindeer and a chance to pet them and feed them graham cracker treats and oats. Along on every tour is Huckleberry, a friendly golden retriever who greets people outside their car or sometimes in their car and snares any crumbs that fall his way.
About 40,000 tourists from across the country have stopped at the ranch since it opened, the Hardys say. They have expanded their operation to include a gift shop, a dining/banquet hall, live entertainment for tours and dinner shows, an autumn corn maze, and a pumpkin cannon. The ranch is open from August through December.
The animals graze like cattle but rely on supplemental feed for their nutritional needs, and although they are known for being adaptable to all kinds of weather, there are fans, shelters and sprinklers to cool them in extreme heat.
In the wild, large herds of reindeer live in the Arctic Tundra regions of North America, Europe and Asia. But on farms like the Hardys', they get daily feed as well as regular visits from veterinarians and interaction with humans.
One of Julie's favorite jobs among many on the ranch is scooping reindeer poop in the pasture. "Because I get to be out there with them," she explained. "I get to talk to them and play with them. They're not livestock. They're pets."
And visitors appear to love them too.
"Grandmas like us enjoy seeing the reindeer as much as the grandkids do," said Brenda Wilson, of nearby Tolono, who recently visited the ranch with her friends. "It makes the Christmas story that much more interesting when you can see the real thing."
But last year one grandma really did get run over by a reindeer, though not with the same tragic consequences as the grandma in the Christmas song about a similar incident.
According to Mark Hardy, it happened when a tourist accidentally left a gate open. Daisy, a reindeer known for her bad attitude, ran out of the pasture and knocked the woman to the ground in the process. The woman was OK.
Daisy normally does not approach the fence for treats. But she has, however, provided the Hardys with an offspring, Hope, who has a sweeter disposition than her mother.
Hardy's isn't the only place to find reindeer in Illinois. There are reindeer at Brookfield Zoo. A Zoo to You, a business in Marengo, has six reindeer, according to manager Lindsay Mikolajczyk. To liven your holiday season or other special occasion, you can rent two reindeer for two hours for $1,050, Mikolajczyk said. Or beginning in May you can see some of them at Santa's Village Azoosment Park in East Dundee.
"We are actually booking them for next year," she said. "People love them."
Bev Herda, of Minnesota, secretary of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, said farm-raised reindeer are known for their friendliness and curiosity. The association has 105 members in the U.S. and Canada, and the number is increasing, but Herda believes reindeer are still very uncommon here. The co-owner of a herd of 40 in Lake Crystal, Minn., she said their herd is probably one of the five largest in the U.S.
Young reindeer sell for about $4,000, and an adult female may cost $5,000 to $10,000.
The Hardys like to keep a herd of 15-20 reindeer. They have sold a couple of reindeer from the herd, but they are particular about whom they sell to. "We didn't get into this to sell them," Julie said.