Golden Fleece of the Arctic

JOHN J. TEAL, JR., is an authority on the arctic, where his attention has been drawn to the musk ox, that huge docile animal with its silken fleece which has been hunted almost to extinction. The musk ox survives in a natural state only in the uninhabited regions of arctic North America and Greenland, and there Mr. Teal successfully captured the young herd which he is seeking to domesticate on his farm in Vermont.

NEARLY three centuries ago merchant adventurers first noticed mysterious bundles of gossamer tumbling across the tundra, small fibrous clouds blown by the summer arctic winds, sometimes catching on the flat dwarf birches and stringing out in waving sheets. Close examination showed that the gossamer was wool, almost incredibly light and drawn in long silken strands. Recognizing at once its value to a Europe intoxicated by the quest for exotic riches, the merchants greedily sought the source of supply, and were startled to find that the wool was shed by a large, shaggy animal with yoke-shaped horns, which was grazing contentedly on the northern prairies.

Ever since the earliest recorded discovery of the musk ox by the Canadian Henry Kelsey in 1689, a great deal has been told and written about it in general and scientific circles — most of it in the realm of mythology. It is as if the remoteness of its habitat, and the fact that it was seldom seen, required that it be regarded as one of the legendary monsters of the outer world. It has been called an ox, a sheep, a northern form of bison; it has been denounced as a relic of the Ice Age due for certain extinction in the near future; its nature has been described as cantankerous and ugly; and explorers have said that they have found it to be the “world’s most dangerous game animal.” But this classically forbidding picture has only served to enhance the desire for the fleece. Upon this all are agreed: its underwool, known as qiviut by the Eskimos, is one of the world’s finest natural fibers.

Thousands of years ago the musk ox was found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, grazing peacefully at the edge of the great ice sheets which extended far south into the continents. Unfortunately for his species, the musk ox is docile and complacent, and his beef-like meat excellent. When attacked, the herd bunches together and faces the enemy, the adult animals on the outside, the calves huddling close to their mothers’ bellies. This defense is usually effective against the wolf, although wolves often catch calves by sneaking up from downwind and are frequently able to cut off a lone bull and wear him to death. But this was no defense against primitive man, who merely had to stand a few yards away and shower the herd with spears and arrows. Prehistoric men hunted the musk ox to extinction over most of his range. The survivors followed the retreating glaciers northward, and today are found in a natural state only in the uninhabited regions of arctic North America and Greenland.

The musk ox is not only the victim of an unearned reputation for evil but also of bad names. The animal has no musk, nor even the glands to produce it, and it is not an ox. The fame of its musk is a curious example of wishful thinking. Having heard tales of musk, explorers attempting to prove how close they had been to the animals reported that they, too, had smelled it. One account even states that it can be smelled up to a distance of one hundred yards! But Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Otto Sverdrup, the two men who have killed and eaten more musk oxen than any others, are adamant on the fact that they have never found even the slightest trace of musk. Consequently, Stefansson calls the animal “ovibos,” and Sverdrup renamed it “polar ox.” Finding musk where it doesn’t occur is an ancient practice, and reminds one that Julius Caesar described the cattle of Germany as smelling strongly of musk.

Actually, the musk ox is an odorless animal in terms of human perception. It does not even have a characteristic odor, like horses or cows, which any man can identify blindfolded. Its only sweat glands are on its hind feet. The best test is that if one buries one’s nose in its wet hair, the only thing to be smelled is water. What men have claimed as a musk odor in the north is the unexpected smell on the tundra of the urine and droppings of the oxen. The Eskimos, whose language is rich in caricature, call the animal oomingmak, meaning “the bearded one.”

As bad as its popular name is, its scientific name, ovibos moschatus, is even worse. The term implies that it not only has musk but that it is half sheep, half cattle. It was coined by a French scientist, de Blainville, in 1816 on the basis of a single skin sent to him from Canada from which two teats were missing. Believing, therefore, that the musk ox had only two teats, like sheep and goats, instead of the four which it really possesses, he invented a classification which has been continued by men who should know better. The clumsy term ovibos might be regarded as a suitable temporary name for better reasons than those advanced by the sweeping generalities of de Blainville, but the moschatus should be dropped in favor of some distinguishing characteristic such as its long hair, short tail, intelligence, or superb fleece.

A practice for which nineteenth-century zoologists were particularly enthusiastic was the discovery and naming of many species. In the case of the musk ox, it was not long before a number of species had been listed, a number which was eventually reduced to four. Of these, the so-called white-faced musk ox of Greenland was one extreme type, while the larger, browner, barren-ground musk ox of the western arctic was the other. In reality, these “species” were no more than the variations of the animal from one end of its range to the other. There was a complete blending along the way, and in any single herd on the barren grounds I have seen perfect examples of the whitefaced musk ox of Greenland. There can be no doubt that all living musk oxen can breed together and produce fertile offspring. There were, however, other species of musk oxen during the Pleistocene, the most impressive of which was the now extinct Giant Musk Ox, whose bones are found in the gravels of Alaska.

The sense of well-being and contentment enjoyed by the musk ox leaves him with little taste for wandering, and he spends the majority of his life within a relatively narrow area. In winter he drifts to the highlands where the wind often sweeps the ground bare of snow, and in summer he spends his time in the rich grasses near lakes and streams. His favorite food, for which he has an addiction similar to that of a cannibal for a missionary, is the willow. Its leaves and tender shoots are his major vice, and he will swim across a dangerous river or risk ambush by wolves to satisfy himself. Having filled his paunch, he will stretch out flat on his side for a deep sleep and, upon awakening, chew his cud.

THE IS no such thing as a permanent musk ox herd. It varies from day to day. Two herds may meet and form a larger herd; the next day they may split up into three smaller ones. It appears that the basic members are the cows which are in heat, and whatever bulls there are in the neighborhood that have heard about it. Whenever the herd is of any size, a cow with a calf is invariably the leader, choosing the particular pasture or stand of willows and directing all peaceful movements.

When attacked, however, the dominant bulls — there are often two who contest top authority — take over the marshaling of defense. If the herd runs, they will bring up the rear; and if it goes into its defense formation, they will stand to one side snorting, rubbing their noses on their forelegs, and making such threatening gestures as stamping the ground with both front feet. Frequently they will forget the enemy in favor of a butting contest with each other. But the bulls have, beyond the fair warnings of their threats, marvelous intelligence and courage. Seldom will they fall into the same type of ambush twice, and they will severely discipline any animal which tries to break formation except to make a bluff charge at the enemy. I have seen bulls sturdily face a plane when “buzzed,” while the rest of the herd dived into the willows, and then leap off the ground trying to hook the pontoons with their horns!

The mating season, during July and August, is the occasion for some splendid battles between the bulls. The two contestants usually make their challenge by circling each other with their heads held strangely to one side. Then they back off, wagging their heads from side to side, rubbing their noses, and hooking whatever branch or twig is in the way. The purpose seems to be to strike terror into the opponent. When squared away, anywhere from twenty-five to one hundred feet apart, they suddenly snort and, springing forth like catapults, crash into each other head first with a horrible, resounding thud. There is a second snort just before the crash. Although one would expect that the impact of 1800 pounds closing at approximately forty miles an hour would telescope each fighter, they immediately back away for another go at it. This keeps up until one feels that sex isn’t worth it, which he will indicate by swerving aside at the last moment. Many times we have sat on a hillside watching this performance, and have always suffered with a vicarious headache.

This tournament has its seeded players, usually beautiful animals about eight or nine years old. They will take on all newcomers and brash upstarts. But sometimes the cows are dominated by a crusty old fighter past his breeding prime, and he will keep the younger, better breeding bulls away. A young animal must be at least five years old before he can hope to fight his way past the older bulls to the cows. Needless to say, this has a deleterious effect upon the herds.

Many bulls decide that women just aren’t worth it. They band together and form a completely male herd, choose a leader, and happily spend the summer in one another’s company. But there are also other bulls who have become soured on the whole musk ox way of life and roam the country alone. Sometimes these are ancient bulls who have been defeated and chased out of the herds. If so, they are credited with a smoldering inner resentment and become the hoary monsters who charge the future platform lecturer “without provocation.” In fact, however, they are peaceful animals who wish to avoid all trouble, and they fall easy prey to the wolves. In the summer of 1955 we saw an old bull cornered in a clump of willows by three wolves, and although he put up a stout defense, he was eventually worn down and killed by them.

SEVERAL successful attempts have been made at transplanting wild musk oxen from Greenland to other areas, notably Alaska, Spitsbergen, and the mountains of central Norway. Since small numbers have been released in each place, the secret of success has been freedom from wolves. The calves have been captured in northeast Greenland by Norwegian sealers. Rounding up a herd with sledge dogs, they have shot the adults and taken the calves which remained near their mothers’ carcasses. So wasteful was this method that the animals have now been protected for years, and zoos have refused to purchase any offered for sale.

But these were transplantations of stock intended to be wild, not attempts at domestication. There is a sound genetic difference between a tame animal and a domestic animal. A tame animal is merely the representative of a wild species held by one means or another in captivity, such as the Indian elephant. Its genetic structure is not altered and, if it will breed, it will reproduce true to form. A domestic animal, on the other hand, is the creation of man through selective breeding. Certain particularly desirable characteristics, such as milk or appearance, have been carefully developed to suit the breeder’s demands, and consequently it often bears little resemblance to its wild ancestors. If a domestic animal is allowed to breed at random, its carefully selected characteristics will disappear and it will revert to the wild form.

The effort to create a domestic musk ox began in 1954, and is being conducted by the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who since 1920 has been the most faithful advocate of domestication, was the progenitor of our project. Permission was obtained from the Canadian government to capture calves providing no adults were killed or injured in the process. The terms of this permission were requested by the applicant because it was felt there were strong practical reasons for preserving the breeding stock of a rare animal, and for developing a harmless method of capture so that, if experiments proved encouraging, it would be possible to secure additional animals in the future in a way which would not be wasteful.

In August, 1954, during the height of the breeding season, a technique of capture was discovered. It was based upon outbluffing the herd, setting an ambush, driving the animals into the water, and then diving in and pulling out the calves. This method was successfully repeated in 1955.

Immediately after capture, the calves were hogtied and brought back to our camp, where they were released in a corral. No sooner were they free than they began charging the men and trying to bowl them over. It was amusing to watch the men jump aside from a 150-pound calf after they had firmly held their ground against 900-pound bulls.

The very first evening we would tackle the calves and force-feed milk through a rubber nipple. The calf would try to drink and get away, all at the same time. By the next day they recognized the proffered milk can and would walk up to the nipple of their own accord. We also fed them heavily with willows. Before flying them home, each calf was given a shot to protect it against shipping fever.

Upon arrival at the experimental farm in Vermont, the calves were first placed in a heavy steelwire pen, a piece of equipment whose usefulness is short-lived. Never having seen a fence before, but knowing they could crash through a willow thicket, the calves made one—just one — effort to charge through. Bouncing off, they learned their lesson, and from that moment on they placidly accepted the lightest woven-wire pasture fence, even when full-grown.

When confined to a small area for study purposes, the calves naturally have to be fed. The basic ingredient of their diet is milk, because in the wild their mothers nurse them through the winter following birth. This method also serves as a simple way to get medicine into them when needed and is a remarkably effective method of taming. They are also fed willows while they last, timothy hay, and grain.

By the end of the third day the calves were tame and would follow us about. I will always remember one of the first evenings when I was in their pen and our dogs came up to the fence. 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 they 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.

Taming has been no problem, and now they are easily the tamest animals on the farm, even though the bulls are sexually mature, weigh around nine hundred pounds, and have formidable horns. What has surprised us is not that they are tamer than our cattle but that they are actually affectionate. Like goats, they enjoy scratching and petting, and will come up to you and rub themselves against you or pick your pocket. This is quite disconcerting with an animal that weighs nearly half a ton!

If a man is working in their pasture, they will join him for the whole day, nibbling his hammer and testing each board or post. They are really captivated by a hole in the ground. They will get in it, butt the banks, scrape dirt away, get out, and then jump back in. Cameras also fascinate them, and it is difficult for a photographer to take a picture because they come up and snuffle around his lens.

One hot summer day my wife and children were down at the pond swimming. They heard some loud splashes and snorts, and looked around to see our friends, “the world’s most dangerous game animals,” paddling out to join them. Like giant dogs, the musk oxen spent the entire afternoon playing in the water with the children.

They have little use for dogs, however, and can easily catch them in an open field. For an animal of such clumsy, plodding appearance, the musk ox has amazing speed. Perhaps one of the most fatuous remarks ever made by the notorious Dr. Frederick Cook was that while on the way to the Pole he learned that his two Eskimo companions could run musk oxen down because on rocky ground two feet were better than four. Of course, this statement is ridiculous. Their four feet give them such an advantage on rocks that they are over the distant ridge while a man is just starting.

THE musk oxen spend most of their days out at pasture and alternate grazing with vigorous play. A favorite game is “king of the castle.” If one gets on the top of a mound, all the other musk oxen feel morally obliged to knock him off. And while young they do a great deal of head-first butting in imitation of adults. Any animal of either sex will gladly go a few rounds with any other, regardless of size, and the dull thuds have become a standard sound around the farm.

At night when they are put back in their corrals either we call them, and they come running in, or, if we want exercise, we round them up with horses. They are easily herded from horseback if not pressed too closely — because then they will stop and face the horse. When they are handled on northern ranches it will be a routine matter to round them up if one remembers that a musk ox is too intelligent to be stampeded.

The outstanding characteristic of the musk oxen is their intelligence. They quickly learn the daily rounds of farm life, and know their names, where they belong at night, how to open gates, and even how to pick a lock. Like most children, they hate shots, and they always recognize the car of our veterinarian, Dr. Ernest Paquette, and immediately hide in the furthest available corner. They dig through the snow for grass in the winter, and they bask comfortably in an exposed place during blizzards or even when the temperature is down to 30 degrees below zero.

Beyond these plain enjoyments, the musk oxen are also the subjects of intensive studies made from a number of scientific viewpoints. Their susceptibility to parasites, for example, has been investigated and methods of control worked out. Most interesting, however, has been the effort to find out just what type of animal they are. Dr. Paul Moody, by studying their blood, has determined that they bear about the same relationship to goats as do bison to cattle. This substantiates the classifications based upon their anatomy, as well as such obvious similarities as the short tail, multi-pellet droppings, manner of courtship, and standing on their hind legs to browse. They are probably an ancient and independent ruminant which started off by itself somewhere between the antelope and the goat family. In terms of behavior, close association with them continually reminds one of goats.

With an animal which is already so useful and has such winning ways, a natural question might be, Why not be satisfied with taming and forget about domestication in the biological sense? The answer is that selective breeding of the musk oxen can take two important directions: first, an effort to breed the best wool producers; and second, an effort to breed off their horns so that when two or more animals are crowded, for example, at a feed trough, the risk of putting out one another’s eyes would be avoided.

Every spring, in May or June, the musk ox sheds his mattress of underwool, the valued qiviut. Gradually breaking away from the skin, it works its way through the outer guard hairs and comes off in big sheets. It cannot be sheared, because shearing would also take off the hairs the animal needs for protection against sun and insects. Since the musk ox enjoys petting and scratching, especially during the shedding period, all one needs to do is pull off the sheets, a job easier than taking off a sweater.

Each mature musk ox gives about six pounds of qiviut, as compared with the three ounces of pashm from a cashmere goat. But to measure qiviut in terms of pounds is like speaking of the proverbial ton of feathers. A quarter of a pound was enough so that my wife could knit a scarf and have four balls of yarn left over. One pound of qiviut, spun in a forty-strand thread, will give a thread nearly twenty-five miles long. The qiviut is a cashmere type of wool, though much longer fibered. It will not shrink when boiled or scrubbed and will take any dye. Sweaters, gloves, and other clothes made from it are so light that one scarcely feels that one has them on, and so warm that they are suitable for below-zero temperatures.

Perhaps the greatest accolade to qiviut has been given by our native birds. For several miles around the farm, song sparrows, robins, bluebirds, and others have given up the nesting materials which they have used since time immemorial and have gone over to building their nests with the qiviut they find on fences.

It used to be said by a few easily discouraged men that even if qiviut were one of the world’s finest wools, it would be impossible to separate it from the guard hairs which might be pulled off with it during shedding. Such fears sound strange, indeed, when one considers that for a long time man has been separating chaff from wheat, seed from cotton, and goat hairs from cashmere. Fortunately, the fears are unfounded. Last spring we sent several bags of qiviut to the Forté Company of Boston, the world’s largest importer and processor of unusual fibers. They sent the qiviut through the special machinery they have designed for dehairing cashmere, and found that it works perfectly. They were able to take out hairs down to any diameter, depending upon the grade desired. In doing so, they also found that the yield of qiviut from raw stock was 70 per cent.

If the early merchant adventurer saw the possibility of making fortunes by selling qiviut to the nobility of Europe, the time is even more appropriate now. For the past generation living standards and wages have risen steadily, and there has been a wide demand for luxurious apparel. The supply of cashmere, which is imported from Asia, is extremely limited, and the various synthetic fibers do not possess all of the advantages of natural wools and very few of the special advantages of the rare fibers. But even if they were as good, it is a safe bet that mink coats and cashmere sweaters would be free from competition in the hearts of women. One can easily see that the elusive qiviut of the arctic — if it can be obtained — will occupy a special place of its own.

The Institute has now accomplished four of its objectives: a method of safe capture has been perfected; the animals have been readily tamed; problems of management and disease control have been worked out; and the basic nature of the animal has been studied. Now, if backing is available, the Institute hopes to establish experimental farms in Alaska and Canada where the animal will have immediate use and where breeding herds will be built up. The increase of musk oxen under controlled conditions should proceed at a good speed. Although the wild cows have calves only every other year because they do not come into heat while nursing, on the experimental farms the calves will be weaned at three months so that the cows can be bred again in August. By this means the rate of increase will be doubled, and will be the same as for cattle.

During September and October of this past year our bulls, as if sensing the importance of a pilot herd, have given their undivided attention to courtship. Whether or not their advances, illuminated by a Vermont instead of an arctic sun, were acceptable to the heifers we will learn in May.

Man is a stubborn creature, as curiously bound to his traditions as some animals are to their instincts. Having invented an agriculture suited to a limited area, he sought unvaryingly to apply it wherever he wandered and succeeded in eroding the topsoil over much of the earth. The range of his cherished civilization has been strictly confined. But armed with the tools of modern genetics and pressed by the need for expanded room for an increasing population, he may be about to break his temperate bonds. The quest for qiviut, the golden fleece of the arctic, may be the means by which he will open up the north for permanent settlement, and will achieve that greater wisdom, the happy adjustment of economy and environment.