Life on the Farm, Arctic-style

Life on the Farm, Arctic-style

Today I photographed what is perhaps the only of its kind in the United States – a musk ox farm.   I was there to capture images of the prehistoric creatures for the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative.  “Oomingmak” is the Inupiat word for musk ox, which translates literally to “the Bearded One.” The cooperative produces scarves and hats and other products from the “qiviut” that is harvested from the musk ox.  Qiviut is the soft wool under the main, bristly coat, and is softer than cashmere. 

One way to acquire qiviut is to simply gather it where found naturally in the wild, from musk ox that shed the qiviut following a long winter.  But the Oomingmak Cooperative only obtains 10% of their qiviut this way, with most of it coming from domesticated sources, like the Musk Ox Farm.  Qiviut is extracted manually, rather than machines, to maximize the yield during the harvesting process.  The musk ox is driven through a chute into holding pens, where farm workers stand in the pen with the musk ox and manually removing the qiviut using a comb/pick.  Any qiviut that has impurities, like hay, sticks, or other foreign objects, is set aside.

 I spent about an hour and a half out at the farm, photographing the new calf (only two days old), the yearlings, the bulls, and the workers interacting with the animals.  I never thought I would ever scratch the bridge of the nose for a musk ox, but I found myself doing just that to three of the animals.  What did all of these animals have in common?  They were all bottle fed, which made them a tad more acceptable of human contact.  This was not a common practice, but sometimes necessary if, for a variety of reasons, the mother is unable to feed the newborn calf. 

I also never thought I would stand on the inside of a fence with a musk ox, let alone twenty or so bulls, without the protection of a fence between me and the animal.  I had mentally placed them on the same platform as American bison, which are notoriously unpredictable, cranky and dangerous.  But these musk oxen were either timid or engaging, in the case of the bottle-fed ones.  I found the bulls in particular unwilling to allow people near them, preferring instead to be alone or among their own kind. 

Being close to these amazing creatures gave me a renewed fascination for them.  I can only hope that someday I will be able to capture images of them in the wild.

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