Basing a Business on Dasher, Dancer

By Anne Kadet, The Wall Street Journal

Imagine Santa lost his reindeer just before Christmas. He wouldn't feel very merry. That's Mark Sopko's situation this holiday season.

The central New Jersey veterinary dental technician had a whole season of appearances booked for his two handsome reindeer, Fetch and Rocket: charity fundraisers, town tree lightings and private parties.

But this fall, despite his careful prevention efforts, both died suddenly of a parasitic infection. There would be no more reindeer hide-and-seek in the pasture, no more reindeer soccer. "It was horrible," says Mr. Sopko. "They were my buddies."

He wasn't sure he should replace Fetch and Rocket. "It almost felt like betraying them," he says.

The reindeer had fulfilled a lifelong dream. "I remember at age 10 thinking, 'Having reindeer would be so cool,' " says Mr. Sopko, who can quote long passages of dialogue from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

He kept his dream a secret until he was in his 20s and working at a Scotch Plains zoo, where he befriended a fellow zookeeper.

She wanted to join him. They celebrated by watching "Santa Claus: The Movie," and began clearing land for a zoo and reindeer outfit on a property she owned.

In the midst of their planning, she was killed by an ex-boyfriend.
"I put the dream away," says Mr. Sopko.

It wasn't until 2012 that Mr. Sopko was inspired by his niece and a friend's children to revive it. "There's no magic in the world kids see today," he says. "Santa is just someone dressed like Santa. But then they see Santa with a reindeer, and oh my God, it really is Santa."

Fetch and Rocket were a big investment. Reindeer prices start at $5,000. Then there was the cost of a truck and trailer, renting a pasture and building a paddock.

But Mr. Sopko, who is also a pilot, beekeeper and proud owner of two skunks, enjoyed his fledgling side business, Reindeer Magic & Miracles. Last year, he booked 15 gigs. This year he booked 20.

Daryl Simon, a director at the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, says Mr. Sopko's business is typical. Most of the estimated 130 reindeer owners in the lower 48 states earn just enough on holiday bookings to cover expenses, he says.

Some do quite well. Mr. Simon, who tends a large herd on his farm in Lake Crystal, Minn., charges $6,500 for his calves; they're pre-sold through 2017. He leases reindeer by the month for $3,000 to $4,000 a head, plus delivery. He even sells antlers to taxidermists: A big rack can fetch $2,000.

But for Mr. Sopko, whose rates start at $500 an hour, it isn't about the money. He loved tending Fetch and Rocket-treating them to lichen he gathered in the woods of Maine, playing basketball using their antlers for a net. Fetch learned to dance on his hind legs and offer a hoofshake.

At appearances, Mr. Sopko played Yukon Cornelius from the Rudolph TV special, growing a

bushy beard for the holiday season. It's hard to get a date when you look like Santa, but owning reindeer helps. "They like that," says Mr. Sopko, who, at age 46, is looking to marry and start a family.

Fetch was the first to die, in mid-October. Rocket went two weeks later.

"The first one, I broke down. The second, I was numb," says Mr. Sopko.
But friends encouraged him to start right back up. And there were clients to think of. "I didn't want all those people to be disappointed," he says.

His two new reindeer, which arrived at the end of November and are yet unnamed, are nothing like Fetch and Rocket. But Mr. Sopko says they have their own magic.

Last week, in its paddock, the new calf, 6 months old, was as playful with Mr. Sopko as a Labrador retriever, butting with his tiny straight antlers, casting friendly glances with his large, melting brown eyes. He frolicked with a beach ball, kicking it with hoofs.

The 2-year-old female, proudly sporting a grand set of 20-point antlers and a shaggy ruff, gracefully accepted a handful of lichen.

So far, the calf is too rambunctious for public appearances, but Mr. Sopko took the cow out for two bookings last weekend.

The first, a Saturday Christmas-tree lighting, just made him miss his old buddies. 

But Sunday, at a charity toy drive, Mr. Sopko and his reindeer were approached by a lovely, laughing little girl with a learning disability. Her eyes lighted up at the sight of the gentle animal.

"I had to turn away," said Mr. Sopko, choking up at the memory. "But it was a good turn away. You're so happy for that person, you know you're doing the right thing."