Intruders break into reindeer pen

Anchorage icon stays put and emerges unharmed

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The big hole in Star's pen could mean only one thing: someone had stolen Albert Whitehead's pet reindeer while he slept in his downtown Anchorage home.

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This wasn't just any pet reindeer, mind you, but an Alaska icon, the sixth in a line of reindeer - all females named Star - going back more than 40 years. Some had met untimely deaths, including one that was kidnapped and butchered, so Whitehead's dismay is understandable, not that he believed history would repeat itself with the friendliest reindeer yet.

"I think maybe someone was trying to set her free," he said Thursday. "I was more concerned about her safety than a meatnapper getting her. I was worried that she was out running lose in traffic."

His free-Willy fears turned out to be for naught. As soon as he saw the hole Wednesday morning through a window, Whitehead dashed out and there was Star, fast asleep on her straw bed. His frantic speed startled her awake.

Outside the forced gap in the chain-link enclosure, someone had sprinkled fresh hay on the sidewalk.

The hole has been repaired and Whitehead is looking at ways to turn the enclosure into an impenetrable haven for his 5-year-old pet. He constantly monitors her with two security cameras transmitting her image to a TV screen in his living room. He plans to add two more cameras so he can keep an eye on the entire 55-by-30-foot pen, watching Star kick her basketball around, nudge at chimes made out of pipes or quietly chew her hay while a steady stream of cars whiz by.

Police are hoping someone comes forward with more information that can lead them to the culprit. They have no suspects.

"Basically it was an overnight thing," said Lt. Paul Honeman. "We have zero clues."

Soon after the hole was discovered, Star dropped one of her spindly antlers, but it's the right time of year, so Whitehead doesn't think it had anything to do with intruder stress. She dropped the other antler Thursday morning while her master discussed pen rebuilding plans with workers from a local fence company.

All three representatives of AAA Fence Inc. consider themselves Star fans and are donating their services.

"We want to redo the whole fence to make it more secure to protect her from the crazies out there," said project manager Tony Clark. He is among the scores of Anchorage residents who bring their children to the corner of 10th Avenue and I Street to visit the petite creature.

"She's a permanent fixture here, definitely a part of the community," said company owner Julie Aune. "I'm just amazed that anyone would want to harm her, to put her at risk."

This Star, however, got off easy compared to other predecessors owned by Anchorage pioneers Oro and Ivan Stewart, who got their first Star from a Native reindeer herder in 1962. Whitehead, a family friend, would later inherit the tradition from the couple, now both deceased.

The original Star lived to the ancient age of 23. The second Star didn't have the chance to live that long.

In 1985, a convicted meat thief from Fairbanks stole the young reindeer from her pen, beat her to death in a field and cut her into pieces. Police were tipped that the man, Michael Yearty, was bragging about the killing. He was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading no contest.

Star III also died at a young age after eating plastic bags that wound up in her pen.

In 1987, a man scaled the fence and broke off a foot-long piece of Star IV's antler, leaving the bloody shaft close to the scene. The pen was fully enclosed after that and Star recovered, finally brought down by arthritis at age 17.

Star V was two months old when she began delighting locals and tourists alike during walks downtown the summer of 2002. But she suddenly became ill and died of a bacterial infection.

The current Star was raised exclusively by humans after being abandoned by her mother at birth. She's probably the least skittish of them all, a familiar sight at parades and other community events, taking regular strolls around the neighborhood with Whitehead.

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