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An American Tale

It reads like the script for a sentimental movie. Instead of humans, though, the actors are animals Caribou, to be specific, or Reindeer if they're domesticated. The movie opens with views of two distinct populations: the Caribou, running in huge herds across vast stretches of the Arctic tundra, and the Reindeer, far fewer in number, who circle within limited ranges until the time comes for them to be rounded up and forfeit their antlers and perhaps their lives, too.

As the action unfolds, the Caribou extend their range until they're face-to-face with their domesticated kin. The music swells; the camera closes in on the Reindeer faces. Will they succumb to the lure of limitless horizons or resist the temptation? The Reindeer hesitate, but not for long. Soon they're experiencing true freedom for the very first time. The last shot captures a smile on one Reindeer's face. Then the following words appear: "Based on a true story."

Yes, the story is true. The Caribou on Alaska's Seward Peninsula have helped liberate thousands of Reindeer. But like most sentimental movies, the real ending is not quite so neat.

As reported in the New York Times last month, the Reindeer that join Caribou migrations face serious obstacles. For starters, the domesticated animals lack the stamina of their wild counterparts. Also, the two populations cannot readily interbreed because Reindeer mate a month earlier than Caribou, which means they calve a month earlier as well. And a month can make a big difference for animals that must time their migrations to coincide with the seasons.