Most children ask for dogs or cats as pets, but 12-year-old Robin Spielman had thoughts of something bigger.
When her mother, Jan Atkinson, married Doug Toelle of Fairbanks—and they moved from an Anchorage condo to a large piece of property—Robin’s interest turned to livestock.
She asked for a horse, but Jane was deathly allergic. Goats were out of the question because Jane was an avid gardener.
One day, when mother and daughter drove by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Reindeer Research Project, Jane threw out the idea of raising reindeer and received an enthusiastic response.
Reindeer aren’t cheap to buy or raise, so Jane told Robin if she did the research and fundraising, she could have reindeer.
Two years later, in 2007—after Robin extensively researched the animals, including interviewing and visiting reindeer farmers, and raised money making and selling her own cookie dough—the family bought two reindeer from Tom Williams’ Reindeer Farm in Palmer.
“This is what happens when you won’t let your daughter have a pony,” Jane quips.
Reindeer are domesticated animals but live in herds, so the pair—Ruby and Moon—had a hard time adjusting after relocating to Fairbanks.
Robin spent much of her after-school time with the reindeer. She did her homework in the pen, ate dinner there—even slept with the animals.
When the first snowfall arrived, however, Robin chose to sleep inside the house. During the night, a tree fell on the reindeers’ fence, and they escaped.
The family called on friends, a radio station and air searches for days until the pair were spotted at a construction site for a McDonald’s. Construction workers helped round them up and into a trailer for the trip home.
The experience inspired a name. The family’s property became Running Reindeer Ranch.
Today, the ranch’s reindeer population has grown to 10 with the birth of offspring.
Jane hosts tourists to her property, telling their unique story and offering guests a chance to learn about reindeer and take a walk with her animals throughout the property. The reindeer are docile enough to be touched, and pictures are taken with those on harnesses.
Back in 2007, Jane didn’t realize Ruby and Moon would change the direction of her life.
While in high school, Robin received an opportunity to study in Germany, temporarily taking her away from her reindeer.
Jane stepped in to help, but when she began nursing school, spending time with the animals became an issue.
“I used to help Robin walk her reindeer, but when I was gone (at school), I needed help,” Jane says.
She enlisted the help of curious friends and relatives, who enjoyed the experience of walking the reindeer. Jane’s friends insisted others would love the opportunity, too.
Jane agreed. She worked as a hospital and school nurse at the time, introducing tourists to Running Reindeer Ranch on the side.
“But it got too busy,” Jane says.
She quit nursing, and now Jane and her family are in the reindeer business.
They offer daily summer tours by appointment, and occasionally yoga and local concerts with reindeer. In the winter, tours are offered five days a week.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tours started with a talk at the bed-and-breakfast they opened next to their home and pasture. In the summer, all tours were outdoors.
This winter, they are sending tourists a video to watch at home to prepare for their visit, with safety tips about interacting with reindeer.
Naturally, summer is ideal for being outside with the reindeer, but Jane insists the winter experience is equally special.
“It’s pretty magical in the winter wonderland,” she says. “It is absolutely beautiful.”
Running Reindeer’s goal is to educate the public about reindeer and caribou. Part of the same genus species, caribou are wild animals and reindeer are domesticated.
Guests learn about the animals’ life in the Arctic, how reindeer were introduced as livestock in North America—even how they grow their antlers.
“It’s an educational experience,” Jane says. “We want them to learn how amazing these reindeer are.”
Unlike other reindeer ranches, Running Reindeer doesn’t raise reindeer for food production. Jane is a vegetarian.
“What sets us apart from every reindeer operation is we didn’t buy these reindeer to start a business,” Jane says. “It all happened serendipitously. Our story is different. They are still very much our pets. We treat them like members of the family.”
To learn more about Running Reindeer Ranch and to walk with the reindeer, visit https://runningreindeer.com.