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Campaigners are urging the public to boycott festive attractions using reindeer. They say Christmas events can be highly stressful for the animals due to crowds, noise and lights as they are kept in small pens, take part in busy parades or pull sleighs.
The RSPCA says that specialist deer vets report a number of problems in reindeer kept in the UK including weight loss, diarrhoea, poor muscle development, malformed antlers, low fertility and high calf mortality.
The charity added that it experiences an increase in concerned calls from members of the public about reindeer in the run-up to Christmas.
RSPCA senior scientific manager in wildlife Dr Ros Clubb said: “As Christmas approaches, we and other animal welfare charities are really concerned that reindeer used in festive events across the country could be suffering in silence.
“Reindeer are kept here in the UK year-round but we always see more calls about them in the build-up to Christmas, which is when they’re taken out to be on display at festive events.
“We understand that it must seem magical for people to see a reindeer at Christmas, but the reality is reindeer are not easy to keep well and need specialised care – they get stressed very easily and are very susceptible to many health and welfare problems.
“In the wild, they are prey animals so they naturally hide their illnesses, and we’re concerned many owners may not realise their reindeer, which are attending stressful, busy festive events, are poorly or may not be able to spot the problems until it is too late.”
Dr Clubb added that reindeer, which are adapted to living in arctic conditions, have complex care needs.
He said: “These animals are semi-wild and not the same as deer that are native to the UK and it is much more difficult to meet their needs in this country.
“They are not suited to being kept in very small groups in confined spaces and they’re vulnerable to a host of health and welfare problems in this country.
“There’s also a concern that those keeping small numbers of reindeer on small holdings to make money from them at seasonal events are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge needed to care for these animals properly.”
Dr Clubb added: “We love Christmas and we understand why families may think that paying to visit an attraction with live reindeer would be a magical, festive thing to do, but we want this to be a happy and healthy time for humans and animals alike.
“We ask that people consider the welfare implications of the animals involved, and perhaps look for events which do not include live animals.”
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Animal Aid is also calling on the public not to attend Christmas events featuring reindeer.
Campaigns assistant Rachel King told the Express: “Christmas should be a joyful time for all, but for reindeer used as ‘props’ in festive events it can mean increased stress and misery.
“These gentle animals are often transported long distances, to be paraded along busy high streets or confined to pens, where noisy and excitable crowds demand interaction.
“This can cause great distress to these sensitive animals.
“Behind the scenes reindeer are unable to roam the vast distances that they would in the Arctic tundra, where they would naturally be found.
“We urge the public to help prevent this suffering by refusing to support events using live reindeer and instead finding animal-friendly ways to have fun.”
PETA director Elisa Allen added: “What could ruin the magic of the season more than seeing stressed animals confined to cramped pens, tied up, or harnessed and forced to pull people around on sleighs?
“Reindeer are intelligent, gentle animals who are meant to roam free over vast ranges – not be carted up and down the country as if they were mere props to be paraded about and gawked at under bright lights in busy shopping centres filled with noise and strangers.
“PETA encourages everyone to extend compassion and goodwill to all this festive season by avoiding cruel events that treat animals like Christmas decorations.”
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