In gift to Christmas movie industry, the rules on importing live reindeer to CT have been loosened

Photo of John Moritz
Santa Claus and three reindeer: Dancer, Dasher and Prancer, return to Sam Bridge Nursery and Greenhouses for the 13th Annual Reindeer Festival and Santa's Workshop in Greenwich, Conn., on Friday November 26, 2021. The event, presented by Jenny Allen/Compass, will run through Dec. 24th. There will be photos with Santa Monday - Friday from 12pm - 6pm, Saturday from 9am - 6pm and closed Sundays.

Santa Claus and three reindeer: Dancer, Dasher and Prancer, return to Sam Bridge Nursery and Greenhouses for the 13th Annual Reindeer Festival and Santa's Workshop in Greenwich, Conn., on Friday November 26, 2021. The event, presented by Jenny Allen/Compass, will run through Dec. 24th. There will be photos with Santa Monday - Friday from 12pm - 6pm, Saturday from 9am - 6pm and closed Sundays.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

Amid a broader debate over the future of Connecticut’s generous tax incentives for the film industry, state lawmakers earlier this year delivered a belated and unconventional Christmas gift to seasonal filmmakers: herds of live reindeer.

More specifically, the legislature agreed to relax the state’s existing regulations over importing reindeer, also known as caribou, which had previously been restricted from entering the state except for a narrow window lasting between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

According to lawmakers, the change was sought by the Department of Agriculture as part of a legislative package that included various revisions to laws related to livestock and agricultural development.

The rationale for the change, they said, was to remove additional hurdles for the significant number of Christmas-themed movies that are filmed in Connecticut for channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime. Because those movies often film during the spring and summer months, officials said that production crews can face difficulties obtaining the necessary permits to bring in the up-to 700 pound arctic animals.

“I think we’re just trying to make it easier for the industry and easier on the animals, the issue just kind of came up through the bump and grind of the normal work we do in the state with our sister agencies,” Commissioner of Agriculture Bryan Hurlburt told Hearst Connecticut Media Group earlier this year.

The proposed change attracted little attention from either lawmakers, industry lobbyists or animals rights activists during the session — none of the lengthy testimony submitted by members of the public regarding the omnibus agriculture bill mentioned the reindeer language — and it remains unclear what impact the measure will have on the larger industry.

Jim Watson, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said this week that no one in the agency’s film division had been contacted about the need for such a change prior to the legislative session.

A spokeswoman for Crown Media Family Networks, the parent company of the Hallmark Channel, said in an email on Wednesday that the network has no existing plans to film movies featuring reindeer in Connecticut, and that the company did not reach out to state lawmakers requesting the change.

The network’s 2017 film “Romance at Reindeer Lodge,” did feature reindeer and was produced in Connecticut, the spokeswoman said.

Hurlburt, who was attending a conference this week and could not be reached for additional comment, told Hearst earlier in the year that the state had issued four permits to import reindeer during the holiday season in 2021.

Connecticut lawmakers, however, have revisited the idea of allowing reindeer into the state several times in recent years.

The state’s strict regulations, which date back to 2005, were largely driven by fears of the spread of deadly illnesses such as chronic wasting disease to the state’s native deer population. The disease, which is similar to Mad Cow Disease, affects members of the deer family such as elk, caribou and white-tailed deer, but has yet to be documented in Connecticut.

The first exceptions were made in 2009, when lawmakers voted to allow temporary imports of reindeer into the state during the holiday season as part of Christmas displays. Three years later, the law was loosened again to allow the Department of Agriculture to issue up to two permits to individuals to establish small year-round herds of the animals.

As a result of that law, John Dzen Jr. purchased the first two reindeer for his Christmas tree farm in South Windsor. His herd, which has since grown to four animals, remains the only active one in the state, Dzen said this week.

While Dzen does not loan his animals out for use in filming, he said he had been consulted “a handful” of times in the last decade by production crews seeking help to import reindeer into Connecticut.

Those animals, which he said are typically brought from a farm in upstate New York, are registered with the Department of Agriculture and the State Veterinarian’s office to ensure they have received the proper health checks.

Dzen said he was surprised to hear about the recent change, which he had not been made aware of, and said he was not aware of any issues importing reindeer under the existing laws.

“The movie industry needs reindeer, we make that happen,” Dzen said. “The movie industry has been very good to the reindeer industry,”

Under the new law, which was signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on May 23, anyone seeking to bring reindeer into the state must comply with existing regulations that require a veterinary report within 30 days prior to their arrival, as well as documentation that they come from a herd that is free of tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease.

Outside of the holiday season, the new law states that imported reindeer may not be kept in Connecticut for a period or more than seven days.