"WHAT IS A MUSK OX?"

Sunday morning we visited a musk ox farm. I know what you're thinking, "What is a musk ox?" I'm still not entirely sure, but I do know it is a large mammal that lives in the artic circle (not just Alaska) that looks similar to a buffalo/bison, but with horns.  They do not have musk glands and are not oxen.  They would actually be related to goats and sheep.  What the farm has been trying to do for the last 60 years is to domesticate the animal for certain economic interests.  One of the big interests is their fur.  It is called qiviut (kiv-ee-oot) and is quite a fascinating product.  Their wool is combed, not sheared, and given to native groups who can then knit items to be sold at the farm.  The qiviut is waterproof essentially and not itchy like other wools.  It was a cold and rainy morning and it would have been nice to have been wearing some qiviut.

Learning about the Musk Ox Project's history at
The Musk Ox Farm
The farm was created in the 1930s in the Matanuska Valley of today's Palmer, Alaska.  The project was started by John Teal who studied Agriculture in college. His goal was to domesticate this wild ice age animal and to learn more about it.  What the project is trying to learn about musk ox behaviors and make human interaction with them a more common thing.  One cool fact about the musk ox is that they have evolved well for the cold climate and have spiralled nasal passages that warm the air they breathe, so between their fur and the air they never really get cold.

Our tour guide took us around the farm and shared stories with us about the musk ox and their personalities, yes--they have personalities.  Musk ox make for the best stories.  First we saw they newborns, now a few months old.  Each year the musk ox are named by a theme and this year's theme was spices.  We got to see basil, paprika, poppy, and pepper to name a few. They were the largest group ever. Usually there are about 6 born and this year they had 16 so they had lots of fun coming up with so many names.  We had been told that some of the calves had been getting out of their pins and Keagan and I couldn't help but hope they could manage to get out while we were there.  We were allowed to feed them grass, but since they are still technically wild animals, we were not allowed to pet them.  After the calves are the yearlings, 2 years, then 5 years.  We found out that musk ox love to play; one of their favorite toys is a rubber ball used in the oil field and they also enjoy twirling.

Lincoln, a musk ox
musk ox "toy"

Papaya, bull musk ox

By this point they choose who becomes a steer or a bull.  The last pin we visited was the bulls and Papaya was right near the front.  We learned that he was always in competition with his brother Goliath who was the bigger, dominant bull and would try to earn his place as the dominant one. After a while he began charging the fences when visitors passed by.  While we all hoped he would, he only stood up and walked forward a little (such a disappointment.) 

What I took from this trip was that musk ox are still a very unheard of and unknown animal. Everyday they learn something new about them.  If you are interested in the project, want to learn more, or perhaps want to visit, their website is http://www.muskoxfarm.org/.  Become a friend of the musk ox, or just check them out.  There is also an option to adopt a musk ox, too!
                                                                                                                        -Kay Manuel

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