When a bunch of tiny reindeer fly down from the Arctic, it's a safe bet they're pulling Santa's sleigh, right?

Well, not exactly.The 408 reindeer calves that rode a jet plane from Alaska to the Wolverine State this summer were just part of a southern Michigan man's crusade to introduce the animals to mainstream America.

Santa Claus may be something else, but reindeer do exist, says Chris Knapp, the 40-year-old owner of Knapp Manufacturing Co. in Coldwater.

The calves, growing fat on a 20-acre spread in sight of Knapp's factory, are part of the largest reindeer herd in the lower 48 states. Many of them are destined for sale to breeders, zoos or just animal fanciers who want an unusual pet.

Knapp's love affair with exotic fauna has brought his farm everything from ostriches to fallow deer. But this Christmas season, the attention is definitely on reindeer.

"They're just wonderful animals," says Jack White, a Texas animal handler who works with Knapp.

In one enclosure, a 350-pound reindeer steer meanders over to let visitors scratch his forehead and touch his 3-foot antlers.

In another corral, a few calves nuzzle a human intruder while others go about the business of eating, lazing or kicking up their heels. None seems afraid of people.

The farm is just outside Coldwater, adjacent to the industrial park where Knapp Manufacturing Co. makes metal animal transport crates and department store display racks.

Since buying the land six years ago, Knapp has turned it into a sort of private zoo, with tall concrete pillars, iron gates, barns and shelters, waterlines and more than a dozen pens and pastures.

The first tenant was a friendly Sicilian donkey named Maudie. He found her a welcome change from the pressure of running a company.

"It didn't matter when you went out there," he recalls. "She was always happy to see you. That's the nice thing about animals."

Maudie seemed lonely, so he decided to get her a mate. From there, he just kept going.

"You get another animal, you have to get at least a pair," he says, a quick grin lifting the corners of his mustache. "It's almost like an addiction."

In addition to the reindeer, he keeps a flock of rheas, three zebra, Nilgai antelope, blackbuck, African crested porcupines, scimitar-horned oryx, lemurs, a red kangaroo, prairie dogs, turkeys, peacocks. And, of course, the family of Sicilian donkeys.

"Someday I'd like to have the place set up so I could be open to the public on a limited basis, basically for the kids in the area," Knapp says. "As far as becoming a full-fledged zoo, I can't really afford that."

He's already sold 75 reindeer and has buyers for another 60. Eventually, he'd like to stabilize his herd at around 200 animals.

He bought his first five reindeer in spring 1993. They were friendly, docile, and - with the notable exception of bulls during the fall rut - perfectly content to be handled by humans. They could even be trained to wear a halter and respond to a lead rope.

Knapp was hooked.

"They're just altogether different in disposition than any other deer," he says. "If you put a halter on a white-tailed deer, you'd be asking for big trouble."

With help from White, who has raised reindeer since 1967, Knapp set out to assemble a herd.

In January of this year, the men brought 100 adult reindeer from Alaska. They went back in June to get more than 400 calves, each 3-4 months old.

It was no small undertaking. They lived in Nome for six weeks while selecting calves from Eskimo herds driven into town as part of an annual round-up.

Knapp had his employees build special metal crates for the trip home and then chartered a DC-8 airplane to carry the entire herd on one flight.

As many as three quarters of the calves would have been killed by wolves or harsh weather during their first winter on the tundra. Here, most are expected to survive.

After Christmas, the men will be back in Alaska for more stock. Knapp hopes profits from breeding and selling reindeer will support the rest of his menagerie.

"For the last six years I've poured tons of money into it for the love of the animals," he says. "Now, hopefully, it's getting to the point where it'll start to be self-supporting."

Typical animals sell in a range from $2,500 for a bull calf to $5,000 for an adult cow, Knapp says. Some are worth more. He recently sold a rare white bull calf to an Indiana man who wants to breed light-colored reindeer. The price: $16,000.

The reindeer is a semi-domestic variety of caribou, bred centuries ago by arctic peoples in Europe and Asia, who used them for meat and milk, and also trained some to carry packs or pull sleds.

They're the same species as North American caribou, but smaller and more docile.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government imported Russian reindeer in an effort to make Alaskan Eskimos more self-sufficient.

Today, Eskimo herds number some 40,000 reindeer. The animals are slaughtered for meat and hides, and some antlers are sold to Asian dealers, according to Robert Dieterich, a veterinarian and former director of reindeer research at the University of Alaska.

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The lower 48 states are home to fewer than 3,000 of the animals, including the 500 Knapp and White bought in the past year.

Knapp is hoping the reindeer market will avoid the wild price swings that soured some investors on such exotic animals as ostriches, pot-bellied pigs and even llamas.

"We try to stay away from those hyped markets," he says. "(Reindeer) warrant more love and affection as an animal - rather than as a producer to fatten somebody's pocket. What can you do with an ostrich? You can't have physical contact with it. You can't take young kids out there to touch it.

"The reindeer is a personable animal that you can enjoy and have as a pet," he said.

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