Nine reindeer reported missing soon after dark last night from the live animal exhibit at the National Pageant of Peace returned on their own early this morning, according to a park police official.

A team of veterinarians that examined the reindeer said the animals showed signs of mild exhaustion but were otherwise in excellent health.

Police are looking for an elderly man dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur who was seen harnessing the animals to a large sleigh around 7 o'clock last night.

"All of a sudden this little fat man was behind the reindeer pen and the animals acted like they knew what to do," said a stunned eyewitness. "The man called out 'Dancer' and 'Prancer' and other weird names. Then lickety-split the deer fell into a formation in front of the sleigh."

"The deer weren't afraid of the fellow at all," another eyewitness from the District noted. "Actually, he seemed like a very kind little old man who laughed a lot."

Adult visitors to the Pageant of Peace said the incident was over in less than five minutes and they had no idea how the man maneuvered the sleigh on and off the mall.However, a group of children confirmed a rumor that the sleigh landed and took off like an airplane.

"It was Santa Claus, I know it was," one excited young spectator said. "He winked at me and asked if I still wanted a doll for Christmas."

Another youthful onlooker explained why only children saw the incredible takeoff and landing. "When my mom and dad were talking to the security guard with all the other adults, Santa said for us kids to watch how his reindeer could fly. All of a sudden they started galloping in place and then, with one big leap, they jumped into the sky."

Park police reported that the reindeer returned on their own around 6 this morning. Police responded to calls from motorists who saw the tired animals stumbling up the Mall heading back toward the Ellipse.

Meanwhile, the admittedly puzzled team of veterinarians spent more than an hour picking small jingling bells and silver tinsel out of the deers' antlers. They also reported another mysterious clue in the case -- a substance they found in the beasts' hoofs.

"It appears to be a gravel-like compound found in roof tiles," the chief of the examining team said. "If I didn't know better I'd say the animals had been running on roofs all night. Of course, that's a ridiculous assumption which we've completely ruled out."

Finally, Elmer C. McScrooge, groundskeeper for the Pageant of Peace, reported receiving a large, beautifully wrapped package with his name on it from the little man.

"I couldn't believe it when I opened it up! He gave me the nicest winter coat I've ever seen. I've needed one for years, and this one fits like it was made especially for me."

McScrooge then offered a bit of speculation that official investigators would not acknowledge was under consideration. "Maybe it was that Claus guy," he said. "Maybe it was . . . "