Monday, December 8, 2014

4-H, FFA student shows determination in raising a reindeer

When Shannyn Bird decided she wanted to raise a reindeer for her final 4-H Club project she let nothing stop her. Because of her dedication and persistence, she has a healthy animal to care for until next summer’s Tanana Valley State Fair, when he will be sold at the livestock auction.
Shannyn Bird with Sven, the reindeer.

Walking Sven on a leash around her neighborhood, Bird has been known to stop traffic, as passersby are curious about the unusual animal in their midst.

Bird, who was born in Anchorage and came to Fairbanks at the age of 7, is a home-schooled senior. She has been involved in 4-H since she was 8 and is the secretary of the Effie Kokrine FFA Chapter. She recently represented Alaska at the national FFA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, and hopped over to Ohio for a national poultry show, winning first place in showmanship.

“I’ve always been interested in agriculture,” Bird said. “It’s fun; I’m a poultry nerd.”

In the past, Bird raised chickens and turkeys for 4-H projects but wanted a large animal for her last year. She had experience with cattle on her grandparents’ dairy farm, so naturally, at first Bird considered a cow but knew she couldn’t afford a barn. Since she had been volunteering with the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for over a year, Bird was familiar with reindeer and got her mind set on raising one, especially since a barn isn’t required.

“Reindeer are suited to our environment,” Bird said. “It’s easier to care for Sven than it would be a cow.”

Her parents weren’t thrilled with the idea, but Bird did the financial research and created a slide show presentation to convince them the project would work. The family visited Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer in September to purchase the calf and had to improvise a travel crate that would fit in their pickup truck. Bird bought all the pelleted rations Sven would need for a year in Palmer also.

She also bought fencing supplies and with the help of her mother built a corral. Fencing has been the most expensive investment and Bird hopes to break even with her project.

Through her volunteer work with the UAF reindeer program, Bird met George Aguiar, a research professional who not only works with reindeer on the job but raises them at home. “George is the reason I got my reindeer,” Bird said. “He encouraged me to get one and talked about how to work out my project. I credit him for getting me started and working out the costs and feed. I really appreciate what he’s done for me.”

One surprise for Bird has been how much Sven eats. Although she and Aguiar had planned the feed requirements, Sven’s appetite has been shocking. “He eats twice as much as I predicted,” she said. “George said he has never seen a fat reindeer but this one is bordering on it.”

Aguiar said, “Shannyn is a very motivated student who always brings a great attitude and work ethic to the farm. Watching her put together a break-even analysis and power point to convince her parents that this project was a good idea had me cheering for her the whole way.

“Then to see her coordinate everything from picking up the reindeer in Palmer, feed purchasing, building a pen and halter training and be successful in every aspect of logistics she has attempted to tackle has been impressive.  I am proud of her accomplishments and know she will do great things no matter what field her future entails.”

Caring for Sven (named after a character in the movie “Frozen”) gives Bird a sense of responsibility. “It’s something I can depend on,” she said. “The more time I spend with him the happier he is to see me. The effort put in pays off.

“If he had not been so friendly training him would be a lot more effort.”

At the livestock auction next August, Bird hopes Sven will be bought by a tourism attraction so he won’t go to slaughter. “He’s grown on us,” she said.

Bird is eyeing a veterinary career. “I would like to make vaccines for the animal industry,” she said.
When the day arrives that Bird will apply for veterinary school, it will likely be a plus that she had the experience of raising a reindeer calf.

“The most important thing is to do what makes me happy and love the people who love me back,” Bird said. “It doesn’t matter what you do if you are happy.”

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