The Musk Ox Farm director Mark Austin is the first to admit that Maple, a three-day-old musk ox calf, is the cutest thing in the world. Her thin legs take wobbling steps. Her fine fuzz tickles her giant mother’s belly. And when she ambles through the pasture after nursing, her bright pink tongue wags from the side of her mouth. And Maple is just the beginning: 11 more calves are on the way this spring season, and the farm will soon burst into a flurry of feeding, combing, inserting microchips, tending to mothers, and, of course, greeting visitors.
Though he acknowledges the endearing quality of a baby musk ox in spring, Mr. Austin worries that visitors to The Musk Ox Farm might get so caught up with the new calf that they miss the farm's larger project. “I’m trying to battle the perception we’re a roadside attraction. It’s not just about getting out of your car and snapping a photo of a musk ox for your Alaska photo album.”
Not that Mr. Austin hasn’t snapped a few photos of Maple himself. He simply hopes the spectacle won’t overshadow the nonprofit farm’s scope, which begins and ends with the animals themselves. Although the majestic species is about 600,000 years old, domestication efforts began only 60 years ago by Farm founder John Teal. Every spring, the several-hundred-pound animals shed their qiviut, a thick under wool, some of which the farm ships to the native knitters’ cooperative in Oomingmak. There, members knit the wool into delicate lacy garments that they eventually sell to supplement their subsistence lifestyle. So when Mr. Austin looks at Maple, he sees not just a huggable calf, but the source of positive economic change for rural native Alaskan women. “The animals are fascinating,” he says. “But it’s the big picture that gets me up in the morning.”