The Musk Ox Project
Two million years in the making
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