July 26, 2014 Updated: July 26, 2014 at 11:31 am
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Henry the outreach reindeer likes to play in water sprinklers, sample lichen from the hands of children and prance around the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on a leash.
Thanks to his charisma, bystanders come to him from all sides to see him. They leave more informed about the Arctic's unique domesticated species thanks to Henry's handler Jennifer Robinette.
As part of her job with the research program, Robinette was out with Henry Friday morning on a walk between the University of Alaska Fairbanks Experiment Farm and the university's West Ridge. She takes Henry on a walk through campus about once per week. His outreach calendar includes visits to elementary schools and to Camp Habitat at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.
On a recent Friday, groups of people including tourists and university workers approached Robinette and asked to pet Henry during his walk. Robinette said she's considered bringing Henry as a stress relieving animal when university students are taking finals.
"Even if (people) have seen reindeer once or never or hundreds of times, they get excited to see Henry out," she said. "I really enjoy letting Henry make people happy."
People on campus were full of questions that Robinette patiently answered. She explained reindeers are a domesticated species distinct from the wild caribou.
Fairbanks-area residents may remember Henry's outreach reindeer predecessor, a well-loved reindeer named Rip who died a few years ago.
Henry became the outreach reindeer recently. He's 1 year and 3 months old and has a brown coat with a tuft of white on his chest. His antlers are thickly covered in velvet that especially captivated visitors Friday. Robinette explained that because he's a neutered steer, he doesn't have the same hormonal need to scrape his antlers that a bull would experience.
Henry tolerates dogs and children and he even seems to prefer children to adults. That makes him a good fit for his outreach responsibilities, Robinette said.
Robinette, 30, is natural resources student at the university. She's originally from Anchor Point, a small town on the Kenai Peninsula, and she comes from a family that has long raised reindeer. Her grandfather grew up going to school in a reindeer sleigh in Dillingham, in Southwest Alaska, and her great grandfather used to deliver mail by reindeer in the same area.
When she was growing up, Robinette's older brother and sister raised reindeer. They entered reindeer in the Kenai Peninsula fair in Ninilchik, the first time a reindeer had ever been entered in a fair livestock division, Robinette said. As a girl, Robinette remembers teasing reindeer bulls through a fence, making life difficult for her brother who had to go into the pen to feed them. Robinette started raising her first reindeer at age 15.
Robinette briefly enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after high school but didn't finish her degree right away. She moved to Dillingham, took a job combating the spread of invasive species and had a family.
After a decade away, she moved back to Fairbanks in August to finish her degree and work as the Reindeer Research Program's coordinator. She's glad to work with reindeer again. At the Experiment Farm, she said she sometimes breaks up her office work by visiting Henry to "remind (herself) what's she's doing it for." But she said she most likes the job because she gets to work with people and teach them about reindeer.