BRANDON — Handlers in dark glasses whisked the stars toward the stage, past rubberneckers pulling out phones to steal a photo, past the Cheesecake Factory and under the shadow of the Panera Bread.
Velvet ropes were unclasped. A man in a suit, gold lapel pin in the shape of an antlered head, stood guard checking wristbands. Paying fans lined up as they stood close — but not too close — to the talent.
The high-earning stars took their place in front of the crowd. They spent the next two hours relieving themselves on the ground, gnawing the carpet and lapping water from a plastic bucket.
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Reindeer, like those that appeared at Westfield Brandon mall this month, are in demand here around the holidays. They're also extremely rare, very expensive and subject to regulations that can make them illegal. They're moved around by a secretive handful of people, and on top of that, they command a star's pampered treatment on arrival.
If you find yourself in need of a reindeer in Florida, there's literally one guy you can call: Dargan Watts. Refer to him as the man who saved Christmas, or a savvy businessman; they're both accurate.
Watts is director of the Birchmore Group, a global events company based in Orlando that can deliver snow to a Christmas parade in 80-degree weather or a Grammy-winning singer to a corporate party. He can get you a live reindeer.
That doesn't mean it's easy.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal illness that affects animals in the deer family across 23 states. It has not come to Florida yet. Only one reindeer, in Europe, has contracted it.
The Florida Wildlife Commission in 2013, concerned by the disease's spread, proposed making it illegal to import or possess deer from outside the state. The commission approved the deer ban, but not before Watts reached out to ask for one exception. Reindeer can now visit the Sunshine State, but only for 90 days a year.
Lowry Park Zoo used to bring in reindeer for the holidays. They haven't for years, but still won't say where they got them. Mathieu Stanoch, who organizes the Snow on 7th parade in Ybor City, rented some in 2014, but only because he struck a deal for reindeer that happened to be passing through town. He also won't reveal his reindeer connection.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we'll probably never be able to get them again," Stanoch said. "That company exclusively books those for very high-profile clientele. They do high-end parties, where it's tangible to spend $12,000 to $15,000 on reindeer for a couple hours."
Watts won't say how much it costs to lease reindeer through Birchmore, who his customers are, or where the reindeer come from.
"It's like working with a celebrity," Watts said. "We don't talk about those things. There's a negotiation, we make an offer, and it's accepted or not. This is the real deal. There are people out there who'll dress up a Florida deer like a reindeer. We aren't doing that. It's really special."
ANDRES LEIVA | Times
Like any celebrities, the reindeer get star treatment, Stanoch said. For him, that meant a trip to a hay depot in Plant City.
"There's a rider for the talent. They had to have a special type of hay on the ground. The reindeer had to get, like, a 20-minute break every hour. They showed up in the classiest trailer — with air conditioning."
Birchmore's reindeer stay rested by limiting their appearances, Watts said. The company can't come close to fulfilling all the requests it gets. He won't even consider sending them all the way to Miami despite "pretty significant" offers from celebrities who want them at holiday parties.
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Reindeer, like dogs, are not happy if they sense you're going for a ride and don't bring them along.
They like to run, and when they do, their tongues hang out of their mouth.
They'll steal your tools if you're not looking.
They seem to play reindeer games, like king of the hill.
They occasionally get cold in the winter and need a blanket.
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Modern reindeer descend from a now-extinct line of wild reindeer domesticated in Asia. They're livestock, not wild animals.
There are different breeds. Some are suited for pulling sleighs, and one big-boned type is best for milking. The beefy ones we have in the United States are the Angus cows of the reindeer world.
The first reindeer arrived in North America in 1891 when 16 were shipped from Siberia to be bred as a food for starving native Alaskans. By the late 1920s, there were more than 400,000 there. Some were used to deliver mail. Most were raised for meat.
A century later, Alaskans like Gregory Finstad, a reindeer scientist at the University of Alaska's Reindeer Research Program, are still trying to promote reindeer as a sustainable food source in a state that imports most of its food.
"It's the most tender meat in the world, high in protein, low in cholesterol," he said. "People in the lower 48 think of Santa, we think of burgers and steaks."
In the rest of the nation, reindeer are raised as pets or for holiday leasing. For decades, they were rarely seen in the lower 48 states (a New York Times story from 1941 made a big deal over four visiting Manhattan). That changed in the mid '80s when a wealthy entrepreneur named Jeff Coates chartered a Boeing 727, packed it full of reindeer and headed for Colorado.
"That was the first large shipment," Finstad said. "He knew people down there would pay a lot to have them around during Christmas."
The Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association now estimates the reindeer leasing business is worth $3 million to $5 million annually, with around 3,000 total deer in herds kept in Minnesota, Michigan, the Dakotas — even as far south as Texas — but none in Florida.
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Reindeer love getting close to people.
On a farm near Ocala, a 9-month-old reindeer nuzzles a hand like a dog looking for attention. Then it turns and rests its head on its sister's back.
"These are our pets. They're very curious," said Pat Lavery, 65, standing proudly near the wooden fence in his "git-r-done" trucker hat.
The only reindeer you're likely to see in Florida this year don't spend their off-time in the North Pole, but on this small farm in Summerfield, in the heart of Florida's horse country, with a herd of goats. This is their home for the 90 days they can be here. The rest of the year, they live outside Albany, N.Y., where Lavery has raised a herd for the past 25 years.
Nobody knows these highly sought-after animals are here, Lavery said.
"We don't advertise it."
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times
Public records revealed Lavery as the supplier of Birchmore Group's reindeer. Lavery didn't much see the point of keeping it a secret.
Only four reindeer are permitted to enter Florida in 2016. Two belong to Mike Jablonski, president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, who brings reindeer to an event in Deerfield Beach, then heads right back to New York. The other two are Lavery's, which travel around the state appearing at events.
Lavery introduced his deer as Dancer and Prancer, though his daughter later admitted those are stage names. The little one, born earlier this year, is actually Spot. Her sister, born last spring, "Well, she doesn't really have a name."
They're both female, for a reason. Male and female reindeer grow antlers, but the males' antlers have the untimely habit of falling off during the Christmas season, and that could make for a traumatizing scene at a family event.
Lavery describes getting his reindeer into Florida legally. It involves multiple permits and certificates from veterinarians and state agencies.
That's all in addition to federal permits and regulations. The deer have to be accredited in tuberculosis and brucellosis, which requires testing. Plus, the herd must have been monitored for chronic wasting disease for more than five years.
Then there are the dangers of transporting them across a country where regulations vary by state. Some states require their own permits just to pass through on the highway; in many states it's illegal to bring reindeer over the borders at all.
Jablonksi won't reveal the exact route he takes when transporting reindeer to Florida or say where he stops along the way, out of fear of attracting attention from law enforcement.
"I don't think they take the Zika virus this seriously," Jablonski said. "There's places I don't stop, just because I'm afraid. Guys have had some major problems over the years. Recently, one of our members was going to bring some into Virginia. They said, 'We don't allow it.' The promoter pushed, and they told him, 'We'll put you in jail and probably euthanize those deer.' "
Both Lavery and Watts feel the days of importing reindeer to Florida are numbered. It's too hard to find farmers willing to bother with it all.
"We're getting older," Lavery said. "I don't know how much longer we'll do it."
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All of it — the hassle, the money, the nights bottle-feeding calves and the days navigating a bureaucratic nightmare — has been for this. The enchanted moment a child comes face-to-face with a fairy tale, a creature known only in the mind. It has been touted as the kind of experience a kid might remember for life.
At Westfield Brandon, pouty children squirmed and squinted into the sun while their parents tried to coax a smile out of them for a holiday photo. Some cried. Some looked at the reindeer excitedly for a few seconds, then lost interest.
Victoria Calderon, 5, ran up and shouted, "They're donkeys!"
The reindeer pointed their rears toward the crowd and relaxed on the ground, soaking up the breeze from their portable air conditioner.
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @SpataTimes.