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Downtown Anchorage’s iconic Star the reindeer dies at age 15

Anchorage's iconic Star the reindeer died Saturday at the age of 15, her owner said.

Albert Whitehead raised Star from the time the female reindeer was 10 months old at his home on the corner of 10th Avenue and I Street. Star had been in declining health before she collapsed Saturday afternoon.

A tiny reindeer abandoned at birth by her mother on a Palmer farm, Star had become a curiosity for tourists. Her pen was a downtown landmark for locals.

On Saturday, she spent the day in the backyard with Whitehead, snacking on her favorite treats — grapes and Mini-Wheats cereal. She walked over to the gate like she did when she wanted to go on a walk, Whitehead said. Once the leash was on and they were out in the alleyway, she collapsed.

He sat and talked to her and pet her as she faded.

On Sunday, a bouquet of yellow flowers had been left for Star at her pen. Whitehead was philosophical about Star and her place in Anchorage.

Despite the animal's renown — Star and Whitehead had appeared on National Geographic, the BBC, Animal Planet and beyond — she was not a business or a tourist attraction but a beloved pet he had for almost 15 years.

"I'm just gonna miss her," he said.

Albert Whitehead mourns the loss of his pet, Star the reindeer, outside her home at 10th Avenue and I Street on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, the day after she suddenly collapsed after a short walk. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

She was also the latest iteration of a colorful Anchorage tradition that started in 1960, when Ivan and Oro Stewart, the owners of Stewart's Photo Shop, acquired their first Star the reindeer. Legend has it that Oro Stewart told her husband she wanted an Alaska pet and wasn't satisfied with a husky.

There have been six, all female. Some met untimely, even gruesome, deaths.

The first Star died of old age, at 23. The second was kidnapped and butchered for meat by a newcomer to Alaska who went to jail for the crime.

The third died after eating plastic bags of food that had been tossed into her cage. The fourth lived for 14 years and died of natural causes.

The fifth died of a bacterial infection before she was a year old.

Then came Star VI, who was born in 2002.

Born at the Reindeer Farm in Palmer, she was bottle-fed and raised close to people, Whitehead said.

When she was just shy of a year old, she went to live with Whitehead at the house on the Park Strip.

He had promised to take over the Star tradition from the Stewart family, his former employers and close friends.

This Star had a pretty charmed life, Whitehead said: She slept in a covered nook filled with hay unless it was snowy, in which case she preferred to curl up in the snow. She ate a special mix of food prepared especially for reindeer by Alaska Mill and Feed, up to 9 pounds a day of it, along with dried willow, soft hay and lettuce Whitehead grew especially for her.

She occasionally wandered into his house. Sometimes, she'd stand inside staring out a glass door that faced the street.

"Tourists really couldn't believe that — hey, there's a reindeer in that guy's house!" he said.

She pranced through parades and managed to frequent a downtown wine shop with her owner without ever breaking anything. She appears in holiday pictures, gathered around the fireplace along with Whitehead's grandchildren.

Star liked dogs and people but hated other reindeer and riding in trailers, he said.

For a reindeer, she was mellow and gregarious. One of Whitehead's favorite pictures shows Star on her hind legs, wrapping him in what looks like an antler-filled embrace — her way of showing she was excited, Whitehead said.

Star became one of those things about Anchorage tourists wanted to see and locals kept as a little reminder that their city was different from anywhere else.

"There's a magic about reindeer. Even though we're adults, we want to see them fly," he said.

Fifteen is old for a reindeer, and she had a good life, he said. But he's sad. It's too soon to talk about whether Anchorage will have a seventh Star the reindeer.

He needs to say goodbye to his Star first.

"I need to get through this," he said.

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