You have probably heard of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen. Even Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. And I know you have heard of Rudolph. But do you recall the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s most famous reindeers of all? “Operation Reindeer” was the most publicized event of 1958. Fourteen reindeer and one caribou made their way, sans the open sleigh, to Washington, D.C., for the National “Pageant of Peace” and then to the National Zoo. You bet your jingle bells “Operation Reindeer” took planning and precision. Santa’s friends were a gift from Alaska in anticipation of their admittance to the United States as its 49th State on January 3, 1959. The Greater Washington Board of Trade jumped at the opportunity to provide Santa with his favorite traveling companions for the National “Pageant of Peace” parade. Since the reindeer were not flying much those days, transporting them to D.C. posed a large problem. However, the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, and several transportation companies joined forces to make sure the plan would get off the ground.
In November of 1958, J. Lear Grimmer, Associate Director, and Charles Thomas, Senior Keeper, of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park embarked on a trip to Kotzebue, Alaska, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Once in Kotzebue, Grimmer and Thomas walked into a winter wonderland known as the tundra where temperatures can reach 50 below zero in the winter. With the help of the local Inuit community, despite tough conditions, they trapped a lively herd. Grimmer and Thomas did not always win the reindeer games and quickly learned reindeer are a frisky breed—enroute one reindeer kicked the door open of the plane, 2,000 feet above Alaska. It took Grimmer and Thomas all of their might to get the door shut again. Grimmer later said that, “reindeer hate everybody and each other (I guess that is why they laughed and called Rudolph names). Given a chance they will impale you on their antlers like martini olives on a toothpick.”
The caravan flew 650 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, on an Alaska Air Command plane. The trek then continued via Alaska Railroad to Seward, Alaska, where they met up with the Alaska Steamship Company’s Iliamna. The group then sailed 1,400 miles to Seattle, Washington. Finally, under the watchful eye of Thomas and Grimmer, the animals were loaded onto a specially equipped, 40-foot aluminum livestock trailer from Consolidated Freightways.
The overland journey began on December 5th. The group went dashing through the snow for 3,100 miles. Two teams of two veteran Consolidated Freightways drivers split the journey in half. The first team, who drove the Seattle to Billings run, included Allen C. Lund and Douglas McCall. Once in Billings, the team of Norman B. Haglund and Allen C. Sagerhorn took the reins and finished the run to Washington, D.C.
To make the trip a little more merry and bright, each animal was settled into the truck in its own plywood, custom-made, stall where they could sit or stand. Since their normal plant of choice, lichen moss, was hard to come by in D.C., Thomas gradually integrated alfalfa hay into their feed. Along the way the herd made several stops including a trip to at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, where the animals enjoyed a rest and television appearance. On December 11th, D.C. residents may have heard bells in the snow as the animals safely arrived, with no incidents of running over grandma. After Zoo staff gave the animals a clean bill of health, eight reindeer took up temporary residence on the National Mall, where they entertained visitors for the holiday season. On December 23rd, the herd of eight led Santa’s sleigh in the “Pageant of Peace” parade, and were on hand to watch President Eisenhower light the National Tree. On New Year’s Day the eight reindeer reunited with their pals and took up permanent residence at the National Zoo. The reindeer did so well at the Zoo that within the year, the herd had seven new reindeer calves.