Reindeer at Dzen Tree Farm: A new family tradition

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Fri., Dec. 7, 2012
John Dzen, Jr., of Dzen Tree Farms, with Mistletoe, one of two reindeer he is renting through Dec. 23. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
John Dzen, Jr., of Dzen Tree Farms, with Mistletoe, one of two reindeer he is renting through Dec. 23. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

The company slogan for Dzen Tree Farm in South Windsor is "Where family traditions are made," and Christmas tree shoppers have an opportunity to begin a tradition that Connecticut residents haven't had for years: the chance to visit reindeer. Mistletoe and Belle, two female reindeer, are on display now through Dec. 23 at the top of the hill at Dzen Tree Farm.

John Dzen, Jr., used to rent reindeer for the Christmas tree season more than 10 years ago, but because in the reindeer business demand greatly outweighs supply, he was unable to continue due to high costs.

“About that same time, there were disease concerns in other species of deer in other parts of the world,” said Dzen, specifically noting chronic wasting disease. While Dzen stressed that the disease does not occur in reindeer anywhere in the world, the federal government encouraged a deer ban. At the state level, the ban was adapted from state to state, with prohibitions including the ban of deer ownership or the prohibition of transporting deer across state lines. This included reindeer.

Two years ago, the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association passed legislation in Connecticut that opened the state up to reindeer for one month. While this was good news for out-of-state owners and local exhibitors, Dzen still had the same concern he had a decade ago. “I didn't want to do it, because the one-month expense can exceed year-round ownership,” said Dzen.

A year ago, shortly after Christmas, the Dzen family gathered around their kitchen table and reflected on the year. It was then that Dzen's oldest son, a vocational agriculture student at Rockville High School, said, “Dad, why don't we buy some reindeer?” When Dzen reminded him of the disease scare and the law banning reindeer ownership, his son's reply was simple: “Change the law."

Dzen decided to look into the matter, even if expectations were low. He contacted state Rep. Bill Aman (R-14), who proposed it to the state House of Representatives. Dzen soon found himself testifying in front of the Environmental Committee, explaining that “the concern was not a concern.” A month later, the committee made a favorable recommendation to the House of Representatives, who then passed it.

Next, Dzen brought the bill to state Sen. Gary LeBeau (D-3). LeBeau soon promoted the bill to the state Senate as the Prancer Bill, and though – like Aman – he warned Dzen against getting his hopes up, the bill was passed nine minutes before midnight before the close of the session, in April 2012. The law went into effect Nov. 1, 2012.

While no longer banned, keeping reindeer in Connecticut is a highly regulated endeavor. Dzen had to attain a U.S. Department of Agriculture Class C Exhibitor License, “which is the same license the guy who owns the Bronx Zoo has,” said Dzen. Under the federal government, reindeer are considered exotic animals.

While it may seem serendipitous that the law passed just in time for Christmas, the holiday “peak season” is when reindeer are most expensive to purchase. Mistletoe and Belle are both rented from a herd in New York; however, Dzen has an agreement to trade them in exchange for ownership of newborn reindeer in April. Dzen hopes to build his own accredited herd in Connecticut.

While the past year of passing legislation, jumping through hoops to comply with regulations, and working hard to provide a memorable experience for tree shoppers has been difficult, Dzen also finds it very rewarding.

“This has been a huge headache,” said Dzen. “But when you see the kids' eyes light up, it makes it all worthwhile.”

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