I spy…Let it Reindeer

In The Economist, December 24 – January 6th, 2017 (Read the article here)

Human animals and reindeer go back a long time; some of the earliest stone carvings in Europe are of reindeer. In this article, The Economist describes the reindeer meat industry in Finland and talks to a reindeer herder and his family.

Humans and non-human animals have always had a close and entangled “relationship” of oppressed and oppressor: “I don’t know where the reindeer ends and he begins,”says the wife of a reindeer herder. The Economist describes the family scene taking place in their home in Salla, a remote town in Lapland:

“Outside all is quiet. Inside, Raisa Korpela has been up for a while. As her three daughters yawn into the kitchen she grabs hats and gloves from the detritus of childhood strewn across the room. She checks homework, brews coffee, and slips wedges of cheese between slices of rye bread for breakfast.”

The thematic cohesion between the above paragraph and the next is a particularly interesting one:

And then her partner Aarne Aatsinki walks in, clutching (1)a bag of organs (2)from one of (3)his recently (4)slaughtered reindeer: (5)a tongue, heart and intestines floating in bright red blood”.

The textual theme (and) and marked circumstance (then) could be said to set off the normative breakfast scene from the unusual act of entering a room with a bag of bleeding organs. But who is this unusual for? The wife doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid:  “I don’t know where the reindeer ends and he begins,” she says, which exemplifies how usual this scene is for the family. The children don’t go: ewwww. It could be said that the textual theme is the gasp of the journalist, a moment of disjuncture experienced by a person not used to seeing daily violence. Our mouths don’t salivate at the sight of death and what he or she sees at that moment is: violence. In a bag. The article suggests that it is tradition that keeps this violence going: the average herder has lost money for more than a decade and many have second jobs. But while the Linguini is rooting for the reindeer (and the disappearance of this abominable trade), the representation of slaughter from The Economist‘s point of view is nonetheless problematic and is common in meat-as-food discourse:

  1. Drawing on Hallidayan Systemic Functional Linguistics, the organs are a goal in a transitive material sentence: Her partner (actor) was clutching a bag of organs (goal). This shows the organs are not associated with an animal, and it is the human actor who is acting upon them.
  2. Whose organs? The organs do not belong to an animal (which is only mentioned at the very end of the clause, modified by a verb that acts as an adjective, slaughtered). The organs are separated from the rest of the reindeer’s body, both physically and linguistically. The body is relegated to a mere circumstance, a source or place.
  3. The use of the possessive pronoun his as premodifier of the whole noun phrase shows how the reindeer never stood a chance as a free being.
  4. Slaughtered is used as an adjective to modify reindeer covering any agency of who does the killing. In fact, so far in the article the herder is only vaguely implied, through the linguistic resources we just pointed out, as the killer.
  5. The organs are preceded by an indefinite article a, even though the owner of these organs has been introduced in the previous clause, obscuring the killing and the source even further.


Reindeer herding is culturally embedded in Finland, Norway and Sweden, and is reflected in the language and economical status. For example, it is considered rude to ask a herder how many reindeer they have, which is equivalent to asking a person how much they earn. According to The Economist, when affronted with such a query, a herder would reply: “I have reindeer on both sides of the tree”. Tim Ingold, a British anthropologist has noted that both Finns and Sami have their identity in nature, albeit in different ways: for The Sami, “one works with the world, not against it”, while the Finns view the forest as a resource, something to exploit, either for wood or reindeer.

The reindeer industry (what a noun phrase! it is another example of how animals are exploited to support human endeavors. The reindeer are represented as just another type of industry, not an animal in their own right) comprises only 1% of the meat industry and overall meat production is falling: “Across Finland, 71,580 reindeer were slaughtered in 2013-14, versus 295 127,999 in 1994-5″. Sadly, however, herders are reluctant to explore new avenues for income that does not involve stubborn tradition-based exploitation and oppression. While herders explain why they still ‘herd’ (euphemism for killing) as ‘I just do it, it’s a way of life,” they claim the reason for the decrease in production are.. wolverines.


This is their biggest worry, it is reported. Wolverines are protected under Finnish hunting regulations and reindeer are a good source of protein for them, but note how this is reported:

“A family group of wolverines can get through 90-odd reindeer a year. They, like the herders, favour the calves, so to keep the herd size stable, the herder have to take less. More predators means more money spent protecting herds.”

Using a cunning simile, the wolverines are equated with humans and it is the human who is portrayed to be the ‘bigger person’ and “take” less, making wolverines appear as though they cannot control themselves and humans are doing what is best for ‘the herd’. Humans have the choice, today more than ever, with plant-based food readily available. In fact, according to mathematician Noam Mohr (PETA, 2010), each year the average person (not a whole family) consumes:

Additionally, animal agriculture refers to wild animals as predators while humans are not classified as such. Employing the word protection directs the readers’ attention away from the fact that humans are the real threat.

The writer of the article describes how they spent two days with the herders, “among dead or soon-to-be dead reindeer, hearing stories about vicious wolverine and poor herders”. It’s hard not to wonder why wolverines are described so negatively when those reindeer are intended for slaughter from birth?

The article ends with the return of a reindeer who was thought to be lost:

“Kepo (the name of the reindeer) has found her home!” she [Ms Korpela] says with delight. As friends gather around to stroke Kepo’s furry antlers, it seems she is not the only one.

Kepo with her “family”

The lexical choice here is interesting. First we have her home. Why was she missing in the first place? Could it be that she tried to run away? Secondly, there is friends – whose friends? And the reader is told that they gather round painting a picture of the animal standing still, anticipating a reunion with her loved ones. Looking at the photo above, Kepo’s face is turned away with one of her back legs stretched to the right as though she is trying to get away from the person holding her collar. The position of the people in the photo is as though they are closing in on her, from the left and back towering over a fragile and scared looking Kepo, coupled with the visible tall fencing in the back. The enclosure seems barren of the promised grazing mentioned in the article. There is no evidence in the photo of affectionate stroking of her antlers and even if they attempted to, it isn’t evident that she is willing.One of her eyes is making eye contact with the camera and we are drawn to her plight.

Mr Hourula, an only child herder, speaks of “his” reindeer as an extended family. The Linguini knows you can have your family for dinner, I just didn’t realize you slaughtered them first.





PETA (2010) Vegans save 198 animals a year. Available at: http://www.peta.org/blog/vegans-save-185-animals-year/ (Accessed: 5 January 2017).

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights



5 thoughts on “I spy…Let it Reindeer

    1. The hypocrisy is indeed mind blowing . And the biggest problem is that The Economist is so widely diffused that many people are exposed to this duality and it becomes reality. Thank you for your support and kind words, Peter. Hope your new year started off great!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Love the first photo. I noticed this sentence: “Some people talk to animals”. I always speak to animals, but I talk to flowers also. They grow better, when talking to them – believe it or not. 🙂

    Happy Sunday!

    Liked by 1 person

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