Tundra Joe escapes from university station

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Tundra Joe, the 5-year-old bull reindeer that went on the lam from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Agriculture and Forestry Experimental Station, has been sighted but not captured.

Joe was last seen Monday night about two or three miles from the station in a densely wooded area, said UAF Police Chief Terry Vrabec.

''We're trying to get him secured so we can get him back home in a safe place,'' Vrabec said Tuesday.

Joe is in rut, and probably won't stray far from a herd of females at the school, said Greg Finstad, manager of UAF's reindeer research program.

''He's got one thing on his mind,'' Finstad said.

Joe is recognizable because his antlers point in different directions. Someone cut a hole in the fence to the pen where Joe lives with several other reindeer and handlers on Sunday morning detected his absence. The others stayed put.

''We just knew we were missing a large bull reindeer,'' Vrabec said. ''We began looking at the possibilities was it a prank, a hunting issue or domestic terrorism?''

The FBI was called in to help with the investigation.

Then reports began to come in that Joe had been seen on some of the thousands of wooded acres and trails that make up the Fairbanks campus, Vrabec said.

On Monday night, Vrabec sat in his truck, fielding calls, while others combed the woods in the rain.

They were hoping to herd the wayward reindeer toward either home, a corral at the Large Animal Research Station or toward a person wielding a net gun.

Vrabec counted three PAWS Search and Rescue dogs and handlers, workers from the Large Animal Research Station and others helping with the effort.

''I'm used to chasing kidnappers and burglars,'' Vrabec said. ''This is a new one for me.''

Vrabec said Finstad didn't want to use a tranquilizer gun to catch Joe because the bull was in rut and there was a fear he might have an adverse reaction to the drugs.

Instead, Finstad and another station worker need to get close enough to net the reindeer.

Joe is one of two bulls out of 50 reindeer at the experimental station located near the botanical gardens. Joe has sired more than 20 calves since coming to the farm.

Reindeer are similar to caribou, their wild cousins, but are shorter and more stout. Caribou and reindeer are the only deer species in which the males, females and calves all produce antlers.

''Reindeer are selectively bred to be under the stewardship of people,'' Finstad said. ''They act completely different than caribou.''

Reindeer were introduced to the Seward Peninsula in 1891, and Finstad said they're raised on farms along the highway system not only for their meat, but for tourism.

The experimental station bought Joe, when he was 1 1/2, from a Nenana producer.

Hundreds of school children know Tundra Joe because of his unusual antlers and because he often eats from their hands during school field trips, Finstad said.

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