Zumstein decided to try again if the government would agree to build pens to hold his deer between capture and shipment. The next fall he collected 10 more deer. The holding pens worked, but five of the reindeer died during shipment. This was when Zumstein learned the second lesson. He was moving the animals at the wrong time of year. The best time was not in summer or fall, but at the height of winter, when the reindeer were strongest and most able to survive a journey. He learned, too, that the mature animals were not necessarily the best. Immature calves, or "short yearlings," traveled better than older ones and acclimatized faster.
On Zumstein's next trip he reached home without casualties. But his problems did not end there. He tried putting his reindeer to pasture and in a day found all of them violently ill and frothing at the mouth. Three died. "It broke my heart to see those deer die," Zumstein recalls, "but it bothered me even more not to know why. Three agricultural colleges analyzed the feed in that pasture before we learned that a certain moss on the juniper in this region is toxic to reindeer."
There were diseases and parasites to contend with, too, many of them unique to the species. By trial and error, Zumstein met and conquered one challenge after another. He installed footbaths to eliminate hoof infection, disinfected and rotated pastures, developed special dips and sprays against warbles (a plague reindeer are particularly susceptible to), eliminated worms, flies and other insects, and experimented endlessly with food supplements. His animals grew big and strong, but they did not reproduce.
"From my experience with livestock," Zumstein says, "I figured it had to be age, overbreeding or feed that was keeping us from getting calves. Well, they weren't too old, and they sure weren't overbreeding—we had more bulls than cows—so it had to be feed. I went back to Alaska, and this time I collected samples of all the natural feed up there; then I analyzed everything and matched it here as closely as I could."
"We began getting calves, all right," Zumstein adds, "but they all died of pneumonia. I kept asking myself why they would get pneumonia in Oregon when they didn't up North, where it was much colder. That was the answer. It was colder. The calves were being born in early morning. By afternoon here our hot sun melted the frost. The calves breathed that moisture in their lungs, and that was it. The problem was solved by switching the birthing cows to box stalls. Today we are calving 100% and raising them all, which is a lot better than they do in the wild."
Zumstein's reindeer, in fact, are bigger, healthier and better in every respect than those in the wild. Last year the U.S. Department of Commerce's Area Redevelopment Administration flew Zumstein to Nome to ask him why. For a week of open and closed sessions, Zumstein pulled no punches in telling everyone, from the commissioners on down, just what he thought of the way they were handling Alaska's reindeer and how he thought they should handle them in the future.
"I gave them both barrels," Zumstein says, "but they didn't pay my way up there to hear sweet talk. They kept trying to call me Doctor. I told them I'm no doctor, and I don't have any fancy degrees. I'm not looking for a job, and I'm no politician. I just have plain horse sense and a lot of curiosity. And in 14 years I've produced over 200 strong, healthy reindeer from my original 12 to prove I know what I'm talking about."
Zumstein has also proved that reindeer can be very lucrative. For the past several years Zumstein-trained animals have turned up at Christmastime all over the country pulling sleighs, ogling department-store crowds, making TV appearances and generally delighting one and all. Reindeer teams and displays, complete with Santa Claus (more often than not played by Zumstein himself, who gets even more fun out of this than out of tweaking official tempers), bring $10,000 to $25,000 for a week's performance, $1,000 an hour in parades.
"Economically the reindeer is the sleeping giant of the North," Zumstein says, his blue eyes flashing. "But it won't wake up by itself. You've got to do more than hold meetings. You've got to analyze the feed on various ranges, supplement the natural diet, put out mineral licks, grade the bulls and cull the old, unproductive ones, control insects that carry disease and parasites. I told the people in Alaska if they really wanted to learn about raising reindeer they should come to Oregon."
Zumstein was hardly home and unpacked when the head of the BIA's reindeer department and three of Alaska's best Eskimo herders arrived to study Zumstein's operation at Redmond. Perhaps the most interested student among them was Johnson Stalker, who began then and there making plans for his winter trek.