For years, the Musk Ox Farm has been a local stop for schoolchildren and tourists, a quirky bastion of the Pleistocene in the Matanuska Valley.
But its small staff says it wants the public to know that it’s more than a roadside attraction.
“There’s really no one else doing what we’re doing in terms of an active domestication process,” says Austin, a broad shoulder, ponytailed Colorado native and longtime Palmer resident who started the coffee shop Vagabond Blues before he joined the farm’s staff.
The ultimate goal, he says, is to breed small, domesticated herds of musk ox that could be managed for qivuit, a rare and luxurious fiber, all over Alaska. The idea is to provide a new livelihood option for rural Alaskans faced with an increasing need for cash in formerly subsistence economy.
“To work, this has to contribute greatly to the lives of people whose world is rapidly changing,” says Austin.
The 58 animals that live on the farm are not domesticated – that’s a process that takes intensive breeding and many, many generations – but they are, says Austin, accustomed to handling by humans.
“We want animals that are tame so we can deal with them on the road to domestication,” he says.
Musk oxen are remnants of the Pleistocene era, when they lived alongside animals like the woolly mammoth and giant ground sloth. They managed to survive while other Ice Age mega fauna became extinct, and today about 150,000 of the animals inhabit a range that includes parts of Arctic Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland and Alaska.
They are extraordinary animals, says herd manager Gunnar Babcock, a Wasilla-bred former Sarah Lawrence College philosophy major. Their evolutionary quirks -- spiral nostrils to heat freezing Arctic air before it enters the lungs, an outer and under layer of hair that traps heat and hooves that act like snowshoes, helping the animals not to sink too deeply into the snow -- have allowed the herbivores to survive in some of the harshest landscapes on earth.
They can also be very funny. While the animals are known for long stretches of standing motionless, an excited musk ox will jump and spin playfully. They love willow leaves and grain treats, enjoy nuzzling and nipping shoelaces. And despite their Buick-like appearance, they can run up to 35 mph.
“They are like 800-lb. wild goats,” says Babcock, who has the most contact with herd members on a day-to-day basis.
While most of the animals in Palmer are tame enough to nuzzle up to visitors and sniff Babcock’s boots like a curious dog, mating season causes the bulls (which can weigh up to 1,000 lbs) to “go insane,” says Austin. A dented Chevrolet on farm grounds is proof.
During the winter, the staff largely leaves the animals alone, delivering hay, grain and fresh water when Matanuska Valley winds scour the land of snow. Springtime is calving and combing season, when the animals are led into the barn for a brush out with a pick comb that lasts about two hours. The under layer of hair, called qiviut, is a prized, rare fiber that’s known for being warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. The raw qiviut is sold to the Oomingmak Knitters Coop, an Alaska Native collective that turns the raw fiber into delicate scarves, hats and knits that can fetch hundreds of dollars.
The Palmer farm, which sees the bulk of its visitors between June and September but offers private tours all winter, was hit hard by a tourism downturn in 2009 and 2010. But they are rebounding. More concerning is a mysterious blight that killed a full third of the musk oxen at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station, where the state’s other large captive herd lives. Researchers suspect the animals died, mostly last fall, from a mineral deficiency. But there’s no true consensus as to what caused the die-off. Some scientists believe that a warming Arctic climate and the introduction of fungi to places historically too cold to host it could cause big changes in the wild musk ox population.
Still, Austin and his staff are optimistic about the future of both the Palmer farm and the ancient animals themselves: If musk oxen know how to do anything, it’s survive.