Find reindeer games aplenty at Cougar Mountain Zoo

November 30, 2010

By Laura Geggel

Santa Claus feeds apple slices to Olive the reindeer last year at the barn attached to Santa’s House during the annual Issaquah Reindeer Festival. By Greg Farrar

Issaquah Reindeer Festival raises money for exhibits

Not many people can name all nine of Santa’s reindeer, but Cougar Mountain Zoo General Curator Robyn Barfoot can name 10.

That’s right. There’s Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen — not to mention Rudolph — and, Olive, as in “All of the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names; they never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”

“Zookeepers have a very strange sense of humor,” Barfoot said.

There weren’t always 10 reindeer at Issaquah’s Cougar Mountain Zoo. The first group of reindeer, six in all, came directly from Siberia 23 years ago. Though at the zoo — and in Issaquah, no less — the reindeer not only help Santa every Christmas season but also bring in much-needed dollars for the zoo, which has a slow season during the cold, rainy months.

Now, as the zoo celebrates its 22nd annual Issaquah Reindeer Festival, the reindeer will entertain zoogoers young and old, between visits to Santa Claus and story time, face painting and the grand traveling sleigh.

By now, the reindeer have grown thick winter coats with 8,000 pieces of fur per square inch. Every spring, they shed the extra layer, though they keep their even thicker undercoat, which has 18,000 pieces of fur per square inch.

Barfoot calls the undercoat a “rich dark chocolate brown,” and the winter coat “a lighter brown coloration.”

That thick fur helps the herbivores stay warm on the Artic tundra, or in the plummeting temperatures felt recently in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is their ideal weather,” Barfoot said. “They’re running around in their habitat with their tails up and their noses up.”

Onlookers can admire their antlers from afar and learn trivia about the mammal, including: reindeer are the only deer in which both male and females have antlers, they are the only deer species to have fur on their noses and they are the fastest swimming hoofed animals, capable of swimming four to six miles an hour.

Zookeepers collect the antlers when they fall off and sell them in the gift shop for between $25 and $180, depending on their complexity.

Children who have letters for Santa, or who want to talk to him directly — he’s hard to miss in that bright red suit, after all — can find him from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1:30-4:30 p.m. until Dec. 23.

Photos with Santa cost $15 for one and $10 for each additional photo if taken by a professional photographer, and $5 for two photos if taken with a visitor camera.

The rest of the zoo, except for select habitats, including the big cats and the Magic Forest, is closed during the reindeer festival.

Whoever visits the reindeer is sure to find a furry-nosed friend if apples are involved.

“They love their apples,” Barfoot said. “During the festival, we’ll have apples for sale and people can buy and throw over the fence,” helping the reindeer get exercise and a sweet treat.

If you go

Issaquah Reindeer Festival

  • 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 1 to 23
  • 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 26-30
  • Cougar Mountain Zoo
  • 19525 S.E. 54th St.
  • Tickets: $11.50, $10.50 for seniors, $9.50 for children 12 and younger, free for children younger than 2
  • Groups of 12 people or more receive a $1 discount
  • Find $1 off coupons at PCC Natural Market, 1810 12th Ave. N.W.

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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