Petteri – My Life as a Reindeer

Video on DVD
Running Time: 20:00 min

By Tea Mäkipää and Petteri the reindeer

Petteri_15, photo by Vesa Ranta
Petteri_13, photo by Vesa Ranta
Petteri – My Life as a Reindeer
Petteri 1
Petteri 2
Petteri 3
Petteri 4
Petteri 5
Petteri 6

Click image to enlarge.

Petteri – My Life as a Reindeer

Through the lens of a specially mounted video camera, the viewer can share the viewpoint of Petteri, a Finnish reindeer, in its daily activities in its own environment in Lapland. The artwork presents a document concerning the necessities, social life, and personal matters of interest of the animal, who runs free on the fells and forests.

After Petteri has shot his normal course of life during a couple of days, the filmed material has been edited by humans to minimize the amount of technical and dramaturgical flaws in order to create an artwork presentable for a human audience. Allowing nature to direct, the project aims both to enlarge and enrich the average city dweller’s understanding of the environment we share with other species.

Ruminations of a Reindeer

A Conversation with Petteri

by Tina Yapelli

The name “Petteri,” or “Peter” in English, means “rock.” And Petteri the Reindeer is the rock, the foundation, of Tea Mäkipää’s day-in-the-life video about the reindeer communities of Finnish Lapland.

Tina Yapelli: How did you become involved in the production of Petteri: My Life as a Reindeer?

Petteri the Reindeer: Tea Mäkipää contacted my boss and landlord, Anssi Kiiskinen, for help with her project. A life-long herder at Kopara Reindeer Park in Finland’s northernmost region of Lapland, Anssi was intrigued by the idea of an artwork by and about reindeer, and was happy to assist. He knows very well the personalities and talents of each of his several dozen tenants, and recommended me for the starring role in Tea’s video. He understood that the project needed a reindeer like me, a calm and patient gentleman who communicates well with people. Not to brag, but I was perfect for the part.

How did you develop your star qualities?

Before coming to Kopara Reindeer Park, where I live with a cohort of older neutered males, I worked for Santa Claus at his home in Rovaniemi, Lapland. I pulled Santa’s sledge – or sleigh, as you call it in the U.S. – during seasonal parades. And I gave sledge rides to Santa’s visitors. To qualify for the reindeer team I underwent more than three years of rigorous training, and I’m proud to say that I ranked among the leading pullers. During my employment with Mr. Claus, I especially enjoyed interacting with the boys and girls who visited Santa Claus Village with their parents.

Tell me about the process of making Petteri: My Life as a Reindeer.

After I was selected to be the featured reindeer, and agreed to take additional responsibility as scriptwriter, director and cameraman, Tea and her friend Ali came to Kopara to meet me and begin work. With Anssi’s help, they strapped a video camera, protected inside a metal box, to my antlers. It felt a little awkward at first, but once I adjusted to the extra weight, so it didn’t set my head akilter, I was able to go about my normal routine with the camera running all the while.

How many days did you film?

Eight. I filmed five hours the first day, until the camera battery died. Tea recharged the battery overnight, and we repeated the filming-and-recharging process for seven more days. Sometimes I started shooting in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon, to record my daily schedule from sunrise to sunset.

Were you involved in editing the video?

No, I had to trust Tea with the raw footage, so the artwork became a cross-species collaboration. She edited approximately forty hours of video into a twenty-minute narrative that describes the typical summer day of a twelve-year-old male reindeer living north of the Arctic Circle. She also maintained my unique artistic style, which ranges from painterly impressionism to dizzying abstraction to straightforward documentation to cast-shadow self-portraiture.

Throughout the video you convey a keen awareness of your surroundings, and take special note of the landscape, vegetation and, especially, birdcalls.

All of the reindeer at Kopara return again and again to our favorite spots: Rykimäoja Spring and the old sports field. However, we especially like the Park’s corral, and don’t understand why Anssi doesn’t let us spend the entire day lounging there, along with the rabbits who join us for snacks and camaraderie. It may be true that we like to graze and forage, and enjoy nature’s feast of tender grasses, willow leaves, wetland sedges and milk-cap mushrooms, and don’t mind resorting to a type of lichen known as “reindeer moss” during the frozen winter months. But we prefer the year-round ease and reliability of eating hay pellets at the corral. Wouldn’t you?

Birds are critical informants – nature’s gossips, you might say – throughout the forest and fells of Finnish Lapland. They alert reindeer and other prey animals to predators and changing weather conditions. As the video indicates, there is a large variety of species and I enjoy the diversity of their melodic songs, especially when I’m wandering alone without my reindeer companions. By the way, BirdLife Finland, an organization of thirty Finnish bird societies, identified the many species that you hear in the video, since although I can distinguish their sounds, I haven’t learned their common or Latin names.

In addition to the birdcalls, there is another more subtle sound that pervades the video: the clicking of your knees.

Yes, the knees of many species of reindeer produce a clicking noise as we walk. The sound originates in a tendon that snaps over the knee joint to create a distinctive “click” with every step. This click can be heard from as far away as ten meters, and is a form of non-vocal auditory communication between reindeer. If, for example, I hear a reindeer coming toward me under cover of dense forest or darkness, I am able to gauge his size and relative strength by the loudness of his knee clicks. At the same time, those clicks let me know that the approaching animal is one of my own kind rather than a predator, such as a wolf or bear.

What other predators and environmental factors threaten your safety and wellbeing?

According to the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, predation by wolves, bears, lynx, wolverines and eagles has a dramatic impact on reindeer herds. Wolverines in particular have become the targets of concern from the reindeer herding industry. Although it may be true that wolverines will kill a sick or injured reindeer, they primarily scavenge animals downed by lynx. Ironically and unfortunately, wolverines are now at risk due to their unwarranted reputation.

In addition to predation, herd size and automobiles pose peril to my colleagues and me. When herds become too large for the environment to sustain, we are weakened by a lack of food and often die as a result. That’s why the Finnish government sets a maximum number of reindeer that can be herded in Lapland. Currently that number is approximately 200,000, including adult males, adult females and calves. An average of 4,000 reindeer are killed in traffic accidents each year. Finland’s Reindeer Herder’s Association has begun testing reflective sprays applied to reindeer antlers to make us more visible to motorists at night. Glow-in-the-dark reindeer: That could be an interesting and possibly fashionable solution to a very serious problem.

Large-scale reindeer husbandry has been integral to the culture and economy of Finnish Lapland for at least 500 years. How is your lifestyle different from that of your ancestors?

My ancestors’ herders were nomads who traveled by foot, skis and sledge from the southerly forests in the winter to the northern coast in the summer, following the availability of food during the different seasons. Now, Anssi and other herders use snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to manage us. This modernization makes it possible for herders to return to a permanent home every night.

At the same time, the amount of land available to us has become restricted. Finnish reindeer can no longer reach the north coast of Lapland, as that area is now part of Norway and we are not allowed to cross the border, nor can we enter neighboring Sweden. So we stay closer to our herder’s year-round home, although we are free to roam independently and happily remain only half-tame.

Another lifestyle difference is that my colleagues and I are allowed to age naturally and often have the opportunity to remain productive during our retirement years. For example, I work part-time with Anssi, his uncle Ari and Miia, who guide reindeer safaris for tourists at Kopara. I’ve been lucky to act in several movies over the years, as well.

Do you know of Tea’s work Our Common Problem: People, in which a donkey, a turkey and a rabbit conversed with passersby in Linz, Austria? If you had been part of that project, what would you have told or asked humans?

Tea created that piece a couple years after we finished our video. I would have loved to participate, and to do some sightseeing in what I hear is a beautiful city, but Anssi needed me to pull the sledge at the Park. And I guess that’s the thing I would have liked to discuss with the people in Linz, how domesticated animals’ lives have been dominated and manipulated by humans to serve their purposes. Animals are valued for our various abilities to work, to supply food and clothing, to encourage tourism, or to provide companionship. And I get that. In fact, those abilities are what keep reindeer herding alive and why thirty-six percent of Finland is designated for reindeer husbandry. But I don’t understand why humans rarely appreciate animals on our own terms, with inherent worth separate from human needs and desires. And I’m also very curious to know why humans want to forget, and even deny, that they are animals, too.

Related to your concerns regarding manipulation and dominance, you and Anssi’s other reindeer are seen in the video with a green tag in your left ear.

As required by law, every reindeer is identified with a tag and an earmark unique to her or his herder. Each summer, all of the new calves in a geographical area are corralled together with their mothers. Because the calves naturally stay close to their moms, who are already marked, the herders can identify which calves belong to whom and then tag and mark them according to their herd. Another roundup takes place each winter, during which the marked reindeer are separated into herds, and then separated again by which lucky reindeer will survive and which unlucky ones will be slaughtered.

Have you made friends with any of the other tenants at Kopara Reindeer Park?

I have gotten to know several of them, including Kuura, who, like me, worked for Santa Claus as a sledge-puller, and Aku, who has been involved with television projects. But my best friend at Kopara is Pirra. Like all reindeer, he and I favor a rather structured life, and fill our days with several periods of activity, each followed by a period of sleep. This repeating cycle of activity and sleep is synchronized with the herd and especially with each other. For example, we walk through the woods together in search of food, and after several hours of grazing we lie down to rest and ruminate together. Sharing this meditative pastime strengthens the bond of our friendship, like when you share a meal with your best friend.

But you also ruminate alone. As the video comes to a close, you are heard ruminating as evening falls and you drift toward sleep. It’s a rather touching segment, when the viewer is privy to a very personal moment.

Actually, what you hear at the end of the video is not rumination. Rather, the sound that was captured in the stillness of the nighttime forest is the beating of my heart.

The beating of your heart! Then the work is a more intimate expression of your daily life than I had realized.

And it’s quite fitting, knowing Tea’s empathetic approach to studying animal behavior.
Throughout her career she has demonstrated respect and appreciation for all animals, from the residents of Kopara Reindeer Park to the furry-and-feathered trio in Our Common Problem: People to the hen-house inhabitants of her audio portrait All Day Symphony, which is yet another story told from an animal perspective. Her long-held fascination with the biological and psychological similarities between human and non-human animals continues to inform her practice, as does her interest in the various types of animal-human relationships. Ultimately, her work addresses humankind’s responsibility for the ecological health of all species, which is indeed the underlying theme of Petteri: My Life as a Reindeer.

Tina Yapelli is a professor in the School of Art and Design at San Diego State University (SDSU) and the director of the SDSU Downtown Gallery. Petteri: My Life as a Reindeer and All Day Symphony were included in animalkind, an exhibition curated by Yapelli and presented at the SDSU University Art Gallery in 2009.