SI Vault
Dolly Connelly
July 17, 1967
Like a creature from an Al Capp comic strip, the hula-skirted musk ox has survived threatened extinction to become a utopian animal for the hard-pressed people of the North
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 17, 1967

The Golden Shmoo Of The Barren Lands

Like a creature from an Al Capp comic strip, the hula-skirted musk ox has survived threatened extinction to become a utopian animal for the hard-pressed people of the North

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Modern appreciation, dating from Stefansson's enthusiasm for the animal, is a complicated story now reaching marvelous culmination, the creation of a new economy for natives of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. The first inkling that this Ice Age mammal still existed on the northern tundra came three centuries ago when Arctic adventurers were astonished to see small clouds of gossamer blowing on the summer winds, a substance so light and silky that often it caught in shining sheets on dwarfed willow clumps growing in upper layers of soil over the permafrost. It was totally out of character with the environment, so much so that discoverers sought out the source of supply. They were astonished to learn that the wool substance was shed in sheets by a large, long-haired animal whose head was enclosed with heavy horns. Subsequently the literature of the time carried references to the strange "monster" that carried under its thick guard hairs an incredibly light wool drawn in long, silken strands.

It bore kinship to the extinct giant musk ox whose massive bones turn up now and again in the gold-dredging pools of Alaska and along the undercut banks of Arctic rivers. Bulls can weigh as much as half a ton and bear some superficial resemblance to the American bison.

The effort to domesticate the musk ox began in 1954 with the capture of three calves from the Thelon River Game Sanctuary in Canada's Northwest Territories under the auspices of the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research. The leader of this project was John J. Teal Jr., an anthropologist who heads up the institute and its cherished Project Musk Ox. The three babies were taken with tender care to Teal's own farm at Huntington Center, Vermont. They were gentled within a week, demonstrating an eagerness to establish good relations with their captors and to master the routine of American farm life.

The oxen did, however, distrust dogs. "Just after the oxen arrived our dogs came up to the fence," Teal says. "The musk oxen, whose natural enemy is the wolf, either saw through to the origin of that selective breeding or mistook the dogs for wolves. With great snorts the oxen dashed for me, stamping their feet on the ground, and formed a defense with me in the center. I knew then that I had been accepted."

Affectionate, playful, intelligent, these supposedly fearsome animals turned out to be sweetie pies of the animal kingdom. They opened gates, picked locks and pockets, played king of the mountain, playfully butted heads, leaned on visitors to induce blissful scratchings, went swimming in the farm pond with members of the Teal family and learned to answer to their names. Writes John Teal in the monthly bulletin of the institute: "Angnanguak, always known as Girlie, the first calf captured in the Northwest Territories, is about to enter her 14th year as the pioneer domestic musk ox at the Institute's farm in Vermont. Always affectionate and fond of petting, she has allowed herself to be milked in the open pastures. Her calf of 1962, Little Girl, is a giant female of splendid proportions, but has not yet been bred for lack of a proper bull. Meanwhile Little Girl is much enamored of a horse with which she grazes, standing flank to flank by the hour and exchanging friendly nips."

In 1964 the institute began establishment of the Alaska breeding station with captures from the wild herd on Nunivak Island. Financing is by grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, with land provided by the University of Alaska. Capturing proved a frustrating procedure, as the slightest approach to the animals produced an immediate circle of threatening horns, the young safely enclosed within the group. They defeated every trick tried on them, from corralling to forcing them into the sea. It was finally discovered that musk oxen are terrified of the downdraft of helicopters. A hovering aircraft scattered the circled animals in all directions. After that the roping was greatly simplified, and soon 31 young animals in their fetching hula skirts of hair—most of them juvenile females—were ruminating in the enclosures.

The great value to the northern economy lies in the qiviut, the golden fleece of the Arctic, which is shed annually at one swoop. Shearing is about as difficult as peeling off a sweater. Breaking away from the skin, qiviut works through the guard hairs. As it grows heavy and hot in warm weather, animals practically ask to be peeled, sidling up for a good scratching. Each animal drops about six pounds of qiviut, compared to three ounces of pashm from the Cashmere goat. The fiber is similar to pashm but about twice as long and half as thick, and thus far silkier. It can be prepared with the same machinery used for cashmere. Four to eight ounces make a sweater. One pound of the precious stuff, worth at least $50, spun into 40-strand thread, makes a ball of thread 25 miles long. A knitter can keep busy for a long time with a quarter of a pound of qiviut yarn. Very strong, it will not shrink when scrubbed or even boiled, and it will take dye without loss of softness or of warmth. Garments woven or knitted of qiviut are so light that the wearer scarcely feels them, yet warming enough to keep the wearer cozy in temperatures well below zero. After all, qiviut keeps musk oxen contentedly chewing cuds at 60� below zero.

Some of the fiber goes into research, but most is being stockpiled toward a goal of 1,000 pounds—an adequate quantity for the first commercial use. At that time one of the many textile firms specializing in rare materials will be selected for processing and manufacture of garments.

The Institute of Northern Agricultural Research has now come through the first two of its major phases with musk oxen: maintenance of the pilot-study herd in Vermont, used for research in physiology, taxonomy, diseases, genetics, behavior and response to management; and the establishment of breeding stations where "seed" stock will be produced and management and other studies further pursued. The experimentation ultimately will be followed by the distribution of domesticated breeding stock to qualified individuals and organizations. Eskimo councils from northern Quebec to the coastal villages of Alaska, learning of Project Musk Ox apparently through "mukluk telegraph," have already requested breeding stock. This summer the institute hopes to establish its second breeding station in collaboration with the province of Quebec, using animals captured on Ellesmere Island, probably the richest remaining musk ox territory in proportion to area. The station would be near Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay in response to urgent petitions from Eskimo village councils of the region.

In nature, musk ox bands number from five to 100 or more animals. A nucleus herd in a northern village probably will number two or three bulls and six cows to the bull. But only when the breeding herds have been augmented by natural increase and further captures of calves—enough to spare the cadre for new domesticated herds—will the musk ox take its giant step out of the Ice Age and into the 20th century economy.

Continue Story
1 2 3