SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – For some parents, getting their kid to believe in Santa is as easy as leaving faux footprints across the living room floor or polishing off the cookies and milk left out on Christmas Eve.
For Mark Sopko, a simple introduction to his two reindeer is enough to see the magic in kids’ eyes.
“I had always loved Christmas,” Sopko admitted. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to have reindeer?’ and thought it would make it real. A few years ago I finally made my dream a reality. They’re just a magical animal that’s why I love them.”
As the owner of Reindeer Magic and Miracles, Sopko happily rents out his antlered friends, the only two in New Jersey, to holiday festivals every year.
“We’ve done parades, office parties, town Christmas tree lightings – we’ve done charity things, raised toys for kids – people they want their child to believe for one more year,” he said.
Now a veterinary dental technician, Sopko’s special bond with exotic animals began in Scotch Plains, where he worked as a zookeeper at the fabled Terry Lou Zoo in 1992.
“The zookeepers were wonderful. They loved the animals and the animals were great. They were more than just animals, they were our friends,” Sopko said. “We would walk in there and they’d hear your voice and get excited. It was great – you felt like Tarzan.”
According to Sopko, his experience at the zoo was actually “a great lesson on what not to do,” however.
“It was the most wonderful job and the worst job at times,” he admitted. “It was heartbreaking – it was an old fashioned zoo. The one winter, 73 animals were lost. Frank and his wife went down to Florida and the animals didn’t get the treatment required. You need to be there.”
Fortunately for Sopko and other animal activists, the Terry Lou Zoo was sold in 1994, and ultimately closed in 1995. The animals found new homes in zoos across the country.
Afterwards, Sopko began working with a woman who owned emus, peacocks, and other wild animals. There, he was told of an animal hospital hiring new technicians and began his veterinary career.
Today, the Hillsborough native cares for a wide variety of animals in his profession, all the while providing a bit of reality for Christmas celebrations throughout New Jersey.
“Some people don’t think they are real animals,” Sopko said. “They ask me – ‘No but really, what are they?’ and I assure them ‘They are real reindeer.’”
Mark Sopko and his reindeer will be attending Santa Night in Medford, NJ, on the weekend of Dec. 19. They will also be at the Turtleback Zoo in West Orange, NJ, on Dec. 22 and 23 from 5-9 p.m.