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Santa's Reindeer For Rent

Ed Benhardt, in green jacket, instantly draws a crowd with his live reindeer.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

SEATTLE - Every year at this time, many retailers and churches ask themselves, “How can we stand out this holiday season?” Here’s a surefire, if expensive, solution: Rent Santa’s reindeer… or maybe even a live camel.

A handful of entrepreneurial ranchers cater to people who want to spice up their holiday events with live animals.

Yes, that is a live reindeer, sharp antlers and all. Step right up to the sleigh to take your Christmas photos.

A woman in an elf costume keeps a tight grip on the reindeer’s collar. Holiday shopping is in full swing here at Swanson’s Nursery in Seattle.

The reindeer handler is Sonya Benhardt. She and her husband Ed own Reindeer Express. That’s one of a handful of ranches in the Northwest that rent out live reindeer for holiday promotions and pageants. Ed Benhardt says he got the idea from reindeer ranchers back East.

“You know, a business wants to draw people in and there’s nothing better during the holidays to draw people in than live reindeer,” he says.

The business started with two domesticated reindeer in 1998. Now there’s a herd of about 40 on the ranch near the small eastern Washington town of Reardan.

Another full complement of Santa’s reindeer live on a farm northeast of Springfield, Oregon. The owners there call themselves retired but run a busy rental operation named Timberview Farm Reindeer.

There’s also a bigger reindeer ranch just outside of Redmond, Oregon.

The Benhardt’s of eastern Washington are the only ones in the region to diversify into camels.

“We were approached to do a couple of nativities,” Ed says. “Then we started getting some interest in leasing them out just the same way we do with the reindeer.”

Ed says the big, shaggy camels do fine here in the chilly Northwest.

“I knew that they would winter well. They winter very well,” he says.

His five camels are fully booked for the holiday season.

“I think way outside the box. So, a lot of stuff I do people will look at me and say, ‘You’re crazy.’ A couple years later, they’ll go, ‘Wow, you’re really smart.’”

It does sound like business smarts when you hear how much it costs to get a live camel for your nativity scene: $500 per day, plus mileage. A pair of reindeer rent for $200 per hour with handler, with a three hour minimum.

Churches, garden centers and nurseries are leading customers. Other marketing targets included shopping malls and community tree lighting ceremonies.

In Seattle, Swanson’s Nursery leased one camel and bunch of reindeer for six weeks. Retail manager Leslie Bruckner insists the price is “so worth it.”

“We have people that come and visit consistently week after week because they love the animals so much,” she says.

Kids and doting parents press around the reindeer enclosure debating which reindeer is Blitzen and which is Dasher. Sonya Benhardt says the most common question she gets is why the reindeer don’t simply fly away.

“They can only fly on Christmas Eve because Santa gives them special, magic dust to make them fly,” she explains.

Sonya says she purposely didn’t name any of her reindeer Rudolph so she wouldn’t have to explain why his nose doesn’t shine so bright.

Oregon’s Timberview Farm does rent Rudolph, but with the caveat that his nose only turns red on Christmas Eve.

On the Web:

Reindeer Express:

Timberview Farm Reindeer, northeast of Springfield, OR:

Operation Santa Claus reindeer ranch just west of Redmond, OR:

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