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— Walter Mencken


Dressed in khaki shorts, a black jacket, and a tan baseball hat, Tammy Batson stands at the edge of the Polar Rim. To Batson’s right, two arctic foxes, one white and the other light brown, scamper back and forth on an upended tree. To Batson’s left, a large raccoon slumbers in a bed of leaves. Thirty feet away, Kalluk (the Athlete), a 950-pound polar bear, is perched on a rock above the Polar Plunge, looking down in Batson’s direction.

As she blocks the sun from her eyes with one hand, Batson shakes a large ring of keys with the other.

She then calls out, “Boris.”

A noise comes from atop the rocky plateau. It sounds like a combination between a dying air horn and a quack from an arctic duck.

“Boris,” she yells before rattling the keys again.

Boris, a two-month-old reindeer, peeks down at Batson. He turns and starts to walk down the rocky mesa, toward the front of the Siberian Reindeer exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. On his way, his black hooves make a clopping sound on the rocky substrate.

Halfway down, he passes his estranged mother and three other adult females. The females are four feet tall at the shoulders — all have antlers that resemble dry twisted tree branches.

As she waits for Boris, Batson informs me that Siberian reindeer are the only species of deer of which both males and females grow antlers.

Boris continues toward Batson’s voice.

“Does he usually respond to you like that?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s pretty vocal,” says Batson, one of the 11 lead-keepers on the Mesa Polar Team. “He’s basically calling us so he can be fed.”

Boris stops at the front of the exhibit and gnaws on dried grass. He stands two and a half feet tall at the shoulders. His coat is dark brown, except for some light brown spots and a dark gray mane underneath his long snout. His hooves are broad and black. Two four-inch-long nubs sprout from the top of his head, where his antlers will be in a year’s time.

On December 25, Christmas Day, Boris will be given a present. It is on that day that he will become independent; zookeepers will wean him from his bottle and start feeding him solid food.

Batson opens the gate and approaches Boris. She walks up to him and pets him on his neck. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t shy away. He doesn’t look as if he needs or wants independence.

Boris’s presence at the San Diego Zoo came as a surprise to the zoo’s curators and keepers.

In May 2010, after some older reindeer had died and only one female remained in the exhibit, zoo curators acquired three more female reindeer from a reindeer farm in New York. But what the curators didn’t know was that one of the female reindeer was pregnant. They didn’t expect it because reindeer mate in late fall and winter and give birth in late May to early June.

“One of them came in pregnant,” said Batson, as Boris still chewed on dried grass. “I can’t think of the last time we had a baby reindeer.”

But Boris’s first two and a half months of life haven’t been easy.

Born on September 18, in front of a crowd of spectators, he was normal sized for a calf, about 15 pounds and two and a half feet tall. But Boris looked weak and cold. Normally it takes a calf less than an hour before it builds enough strength to stand and go to its mother for milk. But after an hour, Boris remained on the ground. The keepers watched as he lay next to his mother, shivering from the cold, unable to stand, and unable to nurse.

“There was no way he was going to get up to eat,” recalls Batson. “He was getting cold from not moving. So, a decision had to be made.”

That decision was to take Boris inside, wrap him in a blanket, and give him a bottle of goat milk. Once he was fed, warm, and could stand, the keepers sent him back out to be with his mother.

“At that point we realized that his mother did not have that attachment. She didn’t come close to him, and she didn’t want to feed him.”

Since that day, zookeepers have hand-raised Boris, giving him three bottles full of goat milk every day. The other reindeers, including his mother, treat him as part of the herd. And now comes the next step: giving Boris his independence, and it just so happens that this comes on Christmas Day.

“We don’t hand-raise our animals because of the cute factor,” says Batson. “We do it because we have to save them.”

On December 25, three months and seven days old, Boris’s Christmas dinner — a plate full of lichens, alfalfa hay, and fresh vegetables — will be his first meal.

— Dorian Hargrove


There’s not a lot about my childhood I remember. The few souls close enough to me to feign an interest in my past accuse me of being evasive about growing up.

Not that I had a traumatizing family life. I just sort of rushed through my youth and came out of it without having paid much attention nor taken many notes. We moved too often for me to have long-term friends, my one sibling was five years older and treated me like a communicable virus, my dad was usually away or asleep, and I — a lonely kid obsessed with books, comics, cartoons, movie theaters, and TV — endeavored to immerse myself in any world other than the one I’d been born into.

I do remember Christmas, though.

Most of my Christmas memories revolve around what was on television at the time. Holiday programming was about the only thing that ever pulled my family together into one room. I’m guessing I was about six when I first saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I think I related to Hermie the Elf, the weird little guy who dreams of being different from all the other elves.

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