The Musk Ox Project

Two mil­lion years in the mak­ing

Wild Fibers 10th Anniversary - - Features - Story and Im­ages by Linda N. Cor­tright

Nes­tled in the shad­ows (and winds) of the Mat-Su Val­ley, the world’s largest herd of musk oxen in cap­tiv­ity con­tinue to thrive.

Mark Austin wakes up ev­ery morn­ing to the sight of 81 pre­his­toric mam­mals burp­ing, belch­ing, and butting heads. For 30 years the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, has seen the best of times and the worst of times.

A mere tri­fle in this an­i­mal’s 2 mil­lion years his­tory.

It’s a few min­utes be­fore seven o’clock. I can no longer post­pone the in­evitable and re­luc­tantly emerge from the bed­cov­ers. I put on a bathrobe, a pair of heavy socks, and a blue cashmere scarf, tied tight. I con­tem­plate don­ning my fur hat, but the vis­ual is too ridicu­lous to imag­ine, let alone the prospect of star­tling my host when I walk down the stairs.

Qui­etly, or at least as qui­etly as I can man­age in un­fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings, I nav­i­gate the steps. Judg­ing by how hard the winds blew dur­ing the night, I wouldn’t be sur­prised to find snow­drifts ca­ress­ing the sofa. But both the floor and fur­ni­ture are un­scathed, pro­vid­ing a clear path to the wood­stove.

At my home in Maine, I am ac­cus­tomed to fill­ing a wood­stove. But this is Alaska, and the stove is built for Alaskan- sized logs. I bend over to “toss” a few in and re­al­ize I would do bet­ter with a cat­a­pult. Any ef­fort not to wake Mark, my host, is de­stroyed as sev­eral logs go bang­ing across the liv­ing room floor.

Within min­utes Mark is stand­ing in the door­way ( also in a bathrobe, mi­nus the socks and scarf) and asks if I’m cold.

“Maybe just a lit­tle,” I whis­per as clouds of steam sweep from my breath.

He smiles and reaches for the ther­mo­stat dial on the wall, a to­tally ef­fort­less— not to men­tion silent— ges­ture. “I’m so sorry if I woke you,” I said. The night be­fore, Mark had gra­ciously of­fered to fetch me a few min­utes be­fore mid­night at the An­chor­age air­port, more than an hour’s drive away. But now, to be awak­ened be­fore sun­rise by a strange woman bang­ing around the house seems dou­bly un­fair.

Not long af­ter the ther­mo­stat tweak, the house be­gins to warm… slightly. Mark and I are sit­ting at the break­fast ta­ble sip­ping cof­fee, our eyes fixed to the win­dow. Less than 50 yards from our perch, a group of 20- mon­thold musk oxen kids are just be­gin­ning to wake- up.

Mark Austin has one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary jobs on the planet! He lives with his wife Kim and daugh­ter Isela, at The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, founded by John Teal in the early 1960s.

Ev­ery morn­ing Mark looks out onto the world’s largest herd of musk oxen in cap­tiv­ity: nearly 80 an­i­mals. The only way in the wild to see what Mark and I can is to build an igloo ( with a large pic­ture win­dow) some­where on the frozen tun­dra and hope a herd of musk oxen wan­ders by.

The op­por­tu­nity to watch th­ese an­i­mals for even a few min­utes, let alone an en­tire day, is be­yond com­pare. And even though Mark has been run­ning the farm for nearly four years, the nov­elty hasn’t worn off.

The musk oxen are a part of Mark’s fam­ily, a fact his wife has gen­er­ously come to ac­cept. ( She did agree, af­ter all, to hold their wed­ding in the mid­dle of one of the musk ox pas­tures.) The an­i­mals all have names ( ev­ery year there’s a dif­fer­ent nam­ing theme, from spices to trees), and they have dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties— which at 18 months are in full force, from the prover­bial trou­ble­maker to the in­sa­tiable flirt.

It is the end of Fe­bru­ary, and over 10 hours of day­light now shines upon the Matanuska Val­ley. Dawn slowly un­folds, and the musk oxen wake up slug­gishly, with one ex­cep­tion. Wasabi is wide awake and itch­ing for some fun.

At dawn, a field of musk oxen are per­fectly cam­ou­flaged. A night­time dust­ing of snow cov­ers their dark shaggy bod­ies, pro­duc­ing an ex­panse of white, punc­tu­ated by mis­shapen “boul­ders” that grad­u­ally grow legs and walk.

Wasabi is up and ap­pears hard­wired for ac­tion. Noth­ing will wake you up faster than one of those full- throt­tle head- butts that th­ese pre­his­toric mam­mals are fa­mous for. The re­sound­ing crash of adult musk ox bulls will loosen your fill­ings. But Wasabi is still a kid, just look­ing for some­one to bump around.

Fi­nally, in a dis­tant cor­ner he spots Pa­prika, and be­fore she can get her bear­ings, Wasabi is in wind- up mode. Mov­ing his legs in re­verse with 800- pounds of de­ter­mi­na­tion ( he weighs about 200 pounds), swing­ing his head from side to side like a Scots­man wind­ing up for the ham­mer throw, Wasabi pre­pares to charge.

I’m not sure Pa­prika is re­ally awake, let alone aware that this pow­er­house is about to smack into her head­first. Even though I dearly love th­ese an­i­mals, I am re­luc­tant to run out in my bathrobe and warn her.

Per­haps there is an al­go­rithm for the num­ber of back­wards steps a musk ox takes rel­a­tive to its own height, body weight and head cir­cum­fer­ence as it con­sid­ers the size of its tar­get. But when Wasabi fi­nally reaches that magic dis­tance, he locks eyes on Pa­prika and then blasts through the snow, whoosh­ing his way like a plow at the head of a freight train.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally, I know this is nor­mal be­hav­ior. But still, I feel like I’m about to wit­ness some type of arc­tic mas­sacre. Mark is root­ing for Wasabi like the fa­vored team at the Su­per Bowl, where great clash­ing of hel­mets and com­pro­mised in­tel­lect re­sults in hours of mind­less play. This anal­ogy bears a dose of re­al­ity, since the musk ox pos­sess a “horn boss,” a dense bony mass that cov­ers and pro­tects its en­tire fore­head. It looks like a foot­ball hel­met strapped on back­wards.

By the time Wasabi reaches a gal­lop, Pa­prika is awake and has, at least, po­si­tioned her­self to face her as­sailant. Sec­onds be­fore im­pact my toes scrunch in fear­ful an­tic­i­pa­tion, but just be­fore they clash, Wasabi throws the emer­gency brake and stops… inches from Pa­prika’s nose.

Their eyes con­nect in a mi­crosec­ond, and Wasabi sweetly ex­tends the tip of his nose ever so slightly to touch Pa­prika’s— and my in­ner foot­ball com­men­ta­tor an­nounces, “luv u.”

I don’t know what to make of this be­hav­ior. Is this en­counter the musk ox equiv­a­lent of Lucy snatch­ing the foot­ball from Char­lie Brown, ex­cept this time the fake- out nets a happy re­sult? I was

It is the end of Fe­bru­ary,

and over 10 hours of day-

light now shines upon

the Matanuska Val­ley.

Dawn slowly un­folds, and

the musk oxen wake up

slug­gishly, with one

ex­cep­tion. Wasabi is

wide awake and itch­ing

for some fun.

con­vinced Wasabi was go­ing to punt Pa­prika into or­bit.

Wasabi and Pa­prika play a few more rounds of “Luv u – Bash!” un­til the rest of the herd wakes up. Al­though far from the thun­der­ing en­coun­ters per­formed by the adult males ( no one is whis­per­ing “luv u” dur­ing those rounds), it is im­pos­si­ble to sleep through morn­ing play­time. The boul­ders are now up and walk­ing, and some have wan­dered over to the feeder, where there is some ex­tra crunchy frozen hay left over from the night be­fore.

One of the perks of be­ing the farm’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor is en­joy­ing the an­i­mals from the com­fort of one’s home, and not an igloo. But by eight o’clock, Mark heads to the of­fice, an old dairy barn that has been retro­fit­ted over the years to ac­com­mo­date a grow­ing herd of musk oxen.

Musk oxen are mem­bers of the fam­ily Bovi­dae ( the same as cows), but they be­long to the sub­fam­ily Capri­nae, which also in­cludes sheep, goats and the Ti­betan chiru, an en­dan­gered an­te­lope with ex­cep­tion­ally fine fiber that in some parts of the world is il­le­gal to wear.

Musk oxen have their own genus, Ovi­bos ( Latin for “sheep- ox”), al­though their clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tive ap­pears to be the go­ral; a unique blend of goat- and an­te­lope- type crea­ture weigh­ing 75 – 95 pounds, na­tive to the moun­tains of Cen­tral Asia.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Janelle Cur­tis, The Musk Ox Farm’s man­ager, was raised on a dairy farm ( in north­east Penn­syl­va­nia) and is hardly a novice around musk oxen. Janelle grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks ( UAF), where she met her first musk ox. ( UAF has main­tained a re­search herd of musk oxen since Teal be­gan the Musk Ox Project) She is Mark’s right- hand woman.

But make no mis­take farm­ing cat­tle and “farm­ing” musk oxen are two very dif­fer­ent oc­cu­pa­tions.

“Musk oxen are pre­his­toric an­i­mals— they’re wild,” says Janelle. “It’s pretty hard to find a wild cow.

“Cows are so well do­mes­ti­cated they come into the barn and get in line with­out be­ing told. Get­ting a musk ox into the barn is more like a rodeo; it can get pretty crazy.”

No sooner does Janelle pro­claim the herd’s un­ruli­ness than I am granted an im­promptu demon­stra­tion.

Nearly ev­ery day a par­tic­u­lar group of an­i­mals needs to get weighed. One day it’s the ba­bies, the next it’s the twoyear- olds, and then the ex­pec­tant moth­ers, or even the notso- slim adult bulls. At one level, this is no more com­pli­cated than stand­ing on a scale.

But this is not the doc­tor’s of­fice where you quickly shed your shoes and step onto the des­ig­nated plat­form. This in­volves herd­ing the cor­rect group of an­i­mals from pas­ture to pas­ture, then through a se­ries of gates and chutes and oneby- one through a sub­way- type turn­stile ( large enough to ac­com­mo­date a rhi­noc­eros), and fi­nally into some­thing called a squeeze chute, ( which looks as me­dieval as it sounds), con­ve­niently equipped with a scale un­der­neath. Did I men­tion th­ese an­i­mals are wild? There must be yet another ( un­proven) al­go­rithm based on the size of the an­i­mal and the amount of time it takes to get them on the scale.

Along the south side of the farm, Janelle and a few in­terns are ca­su­ally walk­ing be­hind a hand­ful of musk oxen,

while a fast- footed in­tern walks ahead of the pack shak­ing a bucket of grain as en­tice­ment. It’s all rather peace­ful. The in­tern is walk­ing. Janelle is walk­ing. The musk oxen are walk­ing, and ev­ery­one is on course un­til they hit the sub­way sta­tion. Then, Lit­tle Man has a change of heart and does a 180- de­gree turn, send­ing the en­tire group back along the 200- yard route they have just trav­eled.

De­pend­ing on the an­i­mals in­volved— size is ev­ery­thing here— Janelle will ei­ther stand down the charg­ing an­i­mal, fran­ti­cally flail­ing her arms and ap­pear­ing to­tally in­tim­i­dat­ing ( even if she is at a 900 pound dis­ad­van­tage), or she will lunge to the side, along with the in­terns.

On this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing there is a half­hearted at­tempt to get the herd to turn around, but Janelle knows her an­i­mals; it’s clear that Lit­tle Man is headed back to the pas­ture.

“Th­ese an­i­mals get weighed ev­ery week,” Janelle ex­plains. “It’s not some­thing new. But if one of them de­cides at the last minute to bolt the op­po­site di­rec­tion, then we have to start all over again.”

Al­though the bolt- and- run tac­tic makes for great en­ter­tain­ment, Janelle isn’t look­ing to be en­ter­tained on the job.

“Th­ese are big an­i­mals and safety is my num­ber one con­cern,” she says. “You al­ways have to be pre­pared if some­thing goes wrong. It doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten, but this is a farm, and th­ese an­i­mals still have a strong sur­vival in­stinct that’s some­times con­trary to do­mes­ti­ca­tion.

“For most of the year things are sur­pris­ingly tame around here. We work re­ally closely with the an­i­mals so they know what to ex­pect, and typ­i­cally, that re­duces their stress level and ours. Rut­ting sea­son, how­ever, is when things get in­ter­est­ing. Try­ing to move cer­tain bulls in be­tween pas­tures when they only have one thing on their mind can get ‘ex­cit­ing.’”

Janelle’s job re­quires huge amounts of chutz­pah as well as end­less pa­tience. Mark may be charged with over­see­ing the farm’s big pic­ture, in­clud­ing open­ing the barn doors to thou­sands of tourists each year and mar­ket­ing the an­i­mals’ lux­u­ri­ously soft fiber, qiviut. But Janelle is di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the health and safety of the an­i­mals, which is at the core of their mis­sion.

“It’s not easy to tell if a musk ox has a belly­ache,” Janelle ex­plains. “Even when we have them in the squeeze chute they are still cov­ered with so much hair, it’s hard to as­sess what’s hap­pen­ing un­der­neath.”

Weight is the sim­plest in­di­ca­tor of an an­i­mal’s health and if Janelle notices an an­i­mal is los­ing weight, than that’s typ­i­cally a warn­ing light that some­thing is wrong.

Musk oxen have roamed the planet for more than two mil­lion years. They have fig­ured out sur­vival bet­ter than most. But the an­i­mals at the farm aren’t in their na­tive habi­tat. Rel­a­tively speak­ing, it’s warm in Palmer. Since the

an­i­mals can­not range as wild musk oxen would, the farm is con­stantly on the look­out for any signs of par­a­sites, which can of­ten be the cause of sud­den weight loss.

Con­trary to how the name sounds, a “squeeze chute” is a be­nign de­vice de­signed to ac­tu­ally pro­tect the an­i­mal ( and han­dler). Slightly smaller than a ’ 68 Mus­tang, a squeeze chute is like a tiny prison cell with bars all around that con­fines the an­i­mal in such a way they can’t thrash around and hurt them­selves if they panic, or if they are feel­ing just plain orn­ery.

When Lit­tle Man ( he out­grew that name long ago) fi­nally en­ters the squeeze chute, Janelle calls me over so I can sink my hands into his glo­ri­ous coat. I re­flex­ively start scratch­ing his back like a very, very big dog; I re­al­ize this is as close as it gets to pet­ting a di­nosaur. The feel­ing… is be­yond words. With Lit­tle Man’s not- so- lit­tle four feet firmly planted on the scale, one of the in­terns calls out his weight, which is recorded on a piece of pa­per ( even­tu­ally to be added to the com­puter data­base. Soon the front of the squeeze chute is opened by a large chain hang­ing over­head. Lit­tle Man blasts through the open­ing like a det­o­nated bomb.

“Get­ting them out is nowhere near as dif­fi­cult as get­ting them in,” Janelle dead­pans, and then tosses me a smile as she helps get the next “vol­un­teer” onto the scale.

Dur­ing the lull, I take the op­por­tu­nity to shove my hands deep into my pock­ets and subtly bob up and down to shift the blood down to my feet. I pull my scarf above my nose, leav­ing only a slit for my eyes. “Are you cold?” Mark asks. “No. I’m fine. I’m just fine. I’m as warm as toast,” I an­swer.

Mark sug­gests we go in­side by the fire, but I refuse. In­stead, we leave the barn and head to what is pos­si­bly the cutest nurs­ery on the planet: 15 musk ox ba­bies, ten months old, fenced in a pas­ture just a few frigid steps away.

Mark be­gins to un­latch the pen’s 10- foot gate but it’s too late. I’ve al­ready climbed over it. The ba­bies, slightly shorter than an av­er­age- size Ger­man Shep­herd, in­stantly gather in de­fen­sive for­ma­tion: a semi- cir­cu­lar bar­ri­cade that would typ­i­cally shield the young from any preda­tors. In this case, they are the young, and ap­par­ently, I am the preda­tor!

Al­though this slightly hap­haz­ard line- up of cu­tie pies is hardly im­pos­ing, I would be quick to hop back over the gate if this was a for­ma­tion of Lit­tle Man and his friends.

I find a spot far away from the ba­bies to kneel down and let them get used to me. It takes more than a few min­utes for them to re­al­ize I am not a threat, and af­ter a pe­riod of sit­ting rel­a­tively mo­tion­less ( be­cause I’m now frozen), Gin­ger comes over to check me out. Ac­tu­ally, I sus­pect it was my long cam­era lens that has caught her at­ten­tion. Af­ter she gives it a thor­ough once- over, I look at Mark and ex­plain that I need to go in­side and wipe the musk ox snot off my lens.

When Lit­tle Man ( he out­grew that name long ago) fi­nally en­ters the squeeze

chute, Janelle calls me over so I can sink my hands into his glo­ri­ous coat. I re­flex­ively start scratch­ing his back like a very, very big dog; I re­al­ize this is as

close as it gets to pet­ting a di­nosaur.

Mark and I re­turn to the house and start paw­ing through a large as­sort­ment of ex­otic teas while wait­ing for the ket­tle to boil. I talk non- stop about the ba­bies and am sur­prised when, Mark hands me a clean dish­towel. “What’s this for?” I ask. “Your lens. You said you needed to wipe the snot off.” “Oh… I lied. I was just cold. The cam­era is fine.” Mark gives me a look. The look all men pos­sess when they have just been duped by a woman with cold feet. “Sorry.” I pour him some tea. Run­ning The Musk Ox Farm might ap­pear to be easy when the an­i­mals are healthy, there’s plenty of hay in the barn, a com­pe­tent farm man­ager is in charge, and the ac­cess road isn’t buried un­der 15 feet of snow. But there is noth­ing easy about run­ning this farm, no mat­ter the weather. Just a few years back, lock­ing the barn doors for good was a sober­ing pos­si­bil­ity.

“We were hit by the econ­omy like ev­ery­one else,” Mark ex­plains. “We are a 501( c) 3 and we de­pend on our donors. If they run out of money, so do we.”

Musk oxen are big an­i­mals and it takes a big bud­get to main­tain them.

Ac­cord­ing to the farm’s bud­get, it takes about $ 1800 per year to sup­port one an­i­mal, and that’s if noth­ing goes wrong. But any­one who runs a farm knows that some­thing’s al­ways bro­ken.

“I’ll bet we spend more time re­pair­ing trac­tors and bro­ken pipes than study­ing spread­sheets. It’s just part of the job,” Mark ex­plains.

Mark’s ad­mis­sion, how­ever, raises an in­ter­est­ing point. Just ex­actly how does one qual­ify for his job? If Mark’s re­sume is any in­di­ca­tion, a lim­ited few meet the cri­te­ria.

Raised in Den­ver’s sub­urbs, Mark claims that his first dream job was to be a trash col­lec­tor. “When you’re five years old and you see guys hang­ing off the back of a truck with­out wear­ing seat­belts, it’s a re­ally cool thing. Even­tu­ally, I fig­ured that prob­a­bly wasn’t a good ca­reer choice and so as I got older, I started telling peo­ple I was go­ing into in- ter­na­tional law and fi­nance. You have to un­der­stand I was a lousy stu­dent, and the idea caught peo­ple so off guard they never asked another thing.”

“Did you re­ally want to go into in­ter­na­tional law and fi­nance?” I ask. “Of course not,” Mark an­swered. The ca­reer tra­jec­tory that even­tu­ally led Mark to The Musk Ox Farm be­gan in col­lege.

With two sum­mer jobs al­ready lined up in Colorado, Mark de­cided at the eleventh hour to change course and head to Alaska in­stead.

“I worked on the “Beach Gang” in Cor­dorva, Alaska. It was a group of rough and tum­ble guys that did ev­ery­thing nec­es­sary to get the fish from the boats into the can­nery. On some days we would move a mil­lion pounds of fish off the boat. And on oth­ers, we would move the en­tire boat. I was driv­ing fork­lifts and play­ing with the cranes. It was great.”

I sus­pect this is bet­ter than hang­ing off the back of a trash truck.

“I had a lot of crazy jobs, some mak­ing crazy amounts of

money, oth­ers, not so much,” Mark says.

Less than 24 hours af­ter Mark got his diploma, he hopped in a truck and drove to Glen­nallen, 120 miles north of Valdez. He was met by a bush plane that took him to a re­mote gold mine near the head­wa­ters of the Chis­tochina river, where by the end of sum­mer, he was do­ing all phases of the min­ing op­er­a­tion. This in­cluded go­ing to bed with $ 80,000 worth of gold stashed un­der his pil­low. ( The owner of the gold mine was near­ing bank­ruptcy and needed a safe place to hide his loot.)

“Did you come to The Musk Ox Farm af­ter the gold mine?” I ask, think­ing the gold min­ing ex­pe­ri­ence might at­tract him to the “golden” fiber. “No. Af­ter run­ning dogs for a win­ter in the shadow of De­nali, I went to Ko­diak and worked on an 88- foot long­liner in the Gulf. The rough­est job with the rough­est group of guys you can imag­ine; drug ad­dicts, ex- cons, so­cial mis­fits…” “And you!” I add with a grin. “I come from Den­ver, where kids mow lawns for the sum­mer and sell pop­corn at the Cine­plex. Th­ese guys have been mak­ing three quar­ters of a mil­lion dol­lars a year since they were fif­teen. It was a big les­son for me. All of that work and noth­ing more than burnt out si­nuses and acres of tax debt to show for it.” “It was a big life les­son,” he says. Bounc­ing around from place to place and job to job, the only con­sis­tent in Mark’s life was Kim. By the mid- 1990s they set­tled in Palmer and even­tu­ally opened Vagabond Blues, a restau­rant/ cof­fee shop/ mu­sic venue that be­came the hub of Palmer’s so­cial scene. “We were lucky. We hit the mar­ket just right. We of­fered great food, and we earned the rep­u­ta­tion of hav­ing great bands from across the coun­try. It gave lo­cals a fo­cal point that Palmer was in­cred­i­bly ripe for.”

How­ever, Mark’s musk ox “ca­reer” be­gan when an ex­cep­tion­ally tall blond man, with over­tones of Adon­is­like charisma, came into Vagabond Blues one day and the two struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. His name was Aaron Gar­land. His cousin, Lans­ing Teal, ran The Musk Ox Farm, and Aaron was Lans’ cre­ative work­horse.

“That’s how it all started, over a cup of a cof­fee and a cream cheese bagel,” says Mark.

Aaron ( a nephew of John Teal’s) even­tu­ally left the farm and Teal’s son, Lans­ing Teal, car­ried on solo. Mark and Lans not only formed a great friend­ship, but Mark also de­vel­oped a keen un­der­stand­ing of the an­i­mals.

“You know Lit­tle Man? The one you were just pet­ting in the barn?” Mark asks. I nod my head for him to con­tinue.

“Lans and I bot­tle- fed him on a sofa that used to sit where you’re sit­ting. In fact, I bot­tle- fed my daugh­ter on that same sofa, too.”

Still in their thir­ties with other dreams yet to pur­sue, Lans and Mark both left the farm— and Alaska. ( Mark even­tu­ally sold Vagabond Blues and took off with Kim to spend five years sail­ing through­out the Pa­cific ocean and

ul­ti­mately to Aus­tralia. Lans re­turned to Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, to raise a fam­ily.)

A lit­tle less than four years ago Mark told ( asked…) Kim to pack the truck ( they had be­come land­lub­bers in New Mex­ico); they were mov­ing back to Alaska with their new­born daugh­ter, and Mark was the new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of The Musk Ox Farm.

“Run­ning the farm is the hard­est job I’ve ever had,” Mark says. “Some things had been ne­glected over the years, and the bal­ance sheet was head­ing the wrong di­rec­tion. But the strange thing is that we re­ally shouldn’t be here at all.”

When John Teal started The Musk Ox Project he had an ex­tra­or­di­nary vi­sion. Al­ready an es­teemed an­thro­pol­o­gist who min­gled with an au­gust crowd of ad­ven­tur­ers and academics, Teal wanted to cre­ate a cot­tage in­dus­try for Alaska Na­tives based on a nat­u­ral ( and sus­tain­able) re­source: qiviut.

Teal’s ul­ti­mate goal was to do­mes­ti­cate the musk ox ( which had be­come ex­tinct in the 1860s and rein­tro­duced in the 1930s,), so fam­i­lies could sup­ple­ment their sub­sis­tence life­style by own­ing a few of them. This would pro­vide enough qiviut for the women ( or men) to make and sell knit­ted gar­ments through a co­op­er­a­tive.

Prior to Teal’s vi­sion, musk oxen had been a valu­able source of meat, and their enor­mous hides were used in to­tal­ity. The soft un­der­coat ( qiviut), that is now so deeply prized, was rarely sep­a­rated from the coarse outer hairs and used on its own. Qiviut is most of­ten com­pared with cashmere. To the touch, their soft­ness is sim­i­lar, al­though the struc­ture of qiviut fiber makes it feel much lighter than cashmere

Teal’s vi­sion of gen­tle, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture was so far ahead of its time, it un­der­scores his bril­liance. But the project had a steep learn­ing curve.

The Musk Ox Project

(page 8)

Mark Austin stand­ing by his of­fice which he keeps heated to a balmy 58 F in the win­ter months.

Un­aware that war­fare is about to com­mence, Pa­prika spends the morn­ing sleep­ing in. Wasabi pre­pares to charge Pa­prika who has now fi­nally got­ten out of bed. Af­ter a brief but in­tense charge Wasabi has a change of heart. Mark Austin has a manly talk with

Mark Austin hand-feed­ing a few musk ox ba­bies as part of the farm’s do­mes­ti­ca­tion pro­gram.

A triad of adult bulls march to the barn for their weekly weigh- in ap­pear­ing calm and or­derly - it is a rouse! Janelle Cur­tis walks be­hind one of the bulls as if she were out walk­ing her dog in the morn­ing sun. With­out warn­ing the bulls de­cide to re­vers

An empty squeeze chute which dou­bles as a beauty par­lor dur­ing comb­ing sea­son.

Baby Roux en­joy­ing a nuz­zle with one of the farm work­ers.

When the wa­ter tank freezes it serves as a per­fect plat­form to prop­erly align with the fence for a big butt scratch. Just one of the rea­sons why the farm’s fenc­ing needs to be very durable, and hence, quite costly.

A hand­some adult bull with a dense un­der­coat of qiviut. Note that his horns have been “tipped” to min­i­mize pos­si­ble dam­age dur­ing hu­man in­ter­ac­tion.

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