6-year-old Liam Meyer mails his wish list to Santa at the zoo’s post office. Liam would like a piano for Christmas so he can learn to play like his dad. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Meet Santa and his animal helpers at Cougar Mountain Zoo’s Reindeer Festival

Ever wonder how Santa Claus is able to get everything done in one night? The secret to his success may be all of the help he gets from the animals at the Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah.

And during the month of December, young Santa fans and their families are invited to come view Kriss Kringle’s team of animal assistants for themselves as part of the 28th annual Issaquah Reindeer Festival. The festival transforms the zoo into a winter wonderland, complete with tinsel and holly, Christmas trees, sparkling lights and carols playing over the loudspeaker.

During the holiday season, jolly old Saint Nick makes the Cougar Mountain Zoo his headquarters when he’s in Issaquah. In fact, he even has a post office and a house at the zoo for whenever he ventures south of the Arctic Circle, and has his elves instated as zoo guides for his comfort.

Kids can visit the post office to create festive artwork and craft their letters to Santa. They can either place their letters in the red and green mailbox or — if they’re brave enough — they can climb the hill to Santa’s house and deliver their Christmas lists in person to the big jolly man in the bright red suit. From 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day, children can sit on Santa’s lap and get their photo taken.

Six-year-old Liam Meyer, who visited the zoo on Dec. 2, told the Reporter that he was hoping Santa would bring him a piano for Christmas.

“My dad used to play piano,” Liam said, explaining that he, too, would like to learn to play the musical instrument.

Outside of Santa’s house, kids can meet another favorite festive figure — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his flying colleagues. For a small fee, visitors can feed the reindeer themselves, so as to make sure the creatures are well-nourished and prepped for their long flight.

At the Story Time Theater, kids can hear one of Santa’s elves read a classic holiday story, such as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Polar Express.” Families can see what it’s like to be Santa Claus by taking a seat in Santa’s sleigh.

Using their own unique gifts, the animals at the zoo all fulfill a specific function to aid Santa in his flight around the world on Christmas Eve.

The Bengal tigers act as Santa’s Candy Cane Makers due to their different colored stripes. The Cougar Mountain Zoo is one of the only zoos in the world to contain golden tigers, which have reddish-orange stripes.

“Bengals are the only species of tiger to come in different colors,” said Cari McKinstry, who works in public relations and promotions for the zoo and as one of Santa’s elves.

To create the stripes found on candy canes, the white and golden tigers roll around on sheets of candy imprinting their red and white stripes onto the candy.

Santa also gets help from another kind of big cat — the cougars who gave the mountain their name. The cougars are designated Santa’s Watchful Kittens, and they run alongside his sleigh keeping watch over the reindeer.

“The kittens keep Santa cuddly and warm on his flight,” McKinstry explained.

On the canine side of the animal kingdom, Santa’s Playful Pups (also known as wolves) bring a little lightheartedness and joy to Santa and his elves so they don’t get too stressed while making millions of toys. Four wolves, ranging from black to white to multi-colored, live at the Cougar Mountain Zoo.

In the Magic Forest, kids can meet Santa’s Special Listeners, the deer, who use their ears to hear kids’ Christmas wishes, and Santa’s South American Reindeer, the alpaca, who take over when Santa gets south of the equator to give Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen and the rest a break.

A host of creatures help Santa’s sleigh to function. The Sentinels (lemurs) use their voices to signal when Santa takes off and lands, while Santa’s Royal Security Team of East African Crowned Cranes flies ahead of the sleigh in protection. The emus, Santa’s Australian Landing Team, run in front of the sleigh when it lands. Emus aren’t the only Australian animals Santa enlists — he relies on the wallabies, his Mail Carriers, to carry children’s letters in their pouches.

McKinstry said that the animals featured at the zoo were chosen because they are species especially in need of protection. “We really focus on conservation through education,” she explained.

Regardless of people’s backgrounds or beliefs, she said, compassion for animals is a universal sentiment. Therefore, by focusing on helping endangered species, the zoo aims to “make this place comfortable for everyone.”

The Reindeer Festival runs from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. now through Dec. 23. Admission is $14.50 for adults, $12.50 for those 62 and over and $10.50 for kids between two and 12. Tykes under 2 get in for free. Groups of 12 or more receive a $1 discount per ticket when purchased in one payment. The Cougar Mountain Zoo is located at 19525 SE 54th St., Issaquah.

Cari McKinstry, who works as one of Santa’s elves and in public relations and promotions for the zoo, feeds a lemur, also known as one of Santa’s sentinels. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Bagheera, one of four rare Bengal tigers at the zoo, spends his time in December making candy canes for Santa. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Nicole Jennings/staff photo Rudolph makes the Cougar Mountain Zoo his home base when he’s south of the Pole.

The Cougar Mountain Zoo is decked out with holiday spirit. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Dylan Meyer, 4, gives a warm greeting to a reindeer at the zoo’s entrance. Dylan visited the zoo on the second day of the festival, Dec. 2, with his parents and older brother Liam. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

The tigers were chosen as candy cane makers because they can imprint their stripes onto sheets of candy. Bengal tigers are the only breed of tiger to come in both orange and white. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Makena Golden and Parker Roycroft, both 3, climb up on Santa’s lap to whisper their holiday wishes. The two are big fans of the Cougar Mountain Zoo and are zoo members, visiting almost every weekend during warmer months. Santa is at the zoo daily through Dec. 23. Photo courtesy of Cari McKinstry

Guests are able to try out Santa’s sleigh during the festival. 4-year-old Dylan Meyer smiles as he and his parents test out what it’s like to be Saint Nick. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

The wolves are Santa’s Playful Pups, bringing stress relief to the North Pole during the busy season. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Santa’s Special Listeners (deer) use their large ears to hear children’s Christmas wishes. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

At the Story Time Theater, Santa’s elves read festive favorites to children every hour. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

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