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    Greenland Ovibos in Captivity and Under Domestication

    Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General

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    EA: John Giaver

            The first Norwegian sealer to bring living musk-ox calves home from

    northeast Greenland was Skipper Ole Grödahl of Tromsö. With his sailing

    Schooner, the Söstrene , he hunted in Franz Josef Fjord and on Clavering

    Island in 1899, and his summer catch included 2 two calves. We do not know

    what happened to them after the expedition's return to Tromsö, but it may

    be assumed that they were sold to a foreign zoo.

            From 1897 up to 1931, some Norwegian sealers, if they did not get a full

    catch during the sealing season in the West Ice at Jan Mayen and in Denmark

    Strait, used to sail northward along the northeast Greenland coast for supple–

    mentary hunting for of walrus, polar bears, bearded seal, ovibos, and, in addition,

    a little salmon fishing. We have reports of 112 such summer expeditions during

    the period mentioned. These expeditions stopped when sealing in the strait was

    combined with fishing of arctic shark along the southeast Greenland coast.

            A few of the summer expeditions brought back with them musk-ox calves.

    Unfortunately our statistics do not specify the number of calves, and the author has

    not been able to get information about their fate, except that "some died, and

    some were sold to foreign zoos, mostly to Hagenbeck in Berlin."

            In 1900, the sailing schooners Minna and Havfruen , with the skippers

    Peter S. Brandal and Ole S. Brandal, brought home "a number of musk-ox calves"

    from northeast Greenland. They were placed in a fenced grass field, and it is

    reported that the grass turned out to be too "rich", so that the calves died.

            Some years later two calves were brought home to the sealing village

    Brandal on the Norwegian west coast. These were placed in an enclosure in the

    mountains, where they had a small shed for shelter. When during the winter one

    calf died, the other found its way ba k c k to the village and lived with the sheep

    until the following summer, when it was sold to a buyer in Berlin the following summer, . i I t had become

    quite tame by that time.

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            A real attempt at domestication of the ovibos was made in 1924 when

    eleven calves were pastured in a small island, Kiholmen, on the west coast.

    Five of them died after a short time, and it was assumed that the grass was

    too rich. Consequently, the six remaining calves were moved to the much

    larger and more mountainous island, Gursköya. Two of these died after having

    fed in a cultivated field. Some of the animals continued to live on the

    island for several years, and a newly born cal v f was observed in 1927. It is

    thought that the rest eventually were shot by poachers, but we do not know


            These were the early attempts of transplantation. How the calves fared

    which were sold to zoos, we do not know. Neither have we any report on how

    many calves were brought to Norway during those years, but the number cannot

    possibly have exceeded two hundred.

            We might explain here how the calves are caught and transported .

    The [ ?] ovibos live in herds:; some consisting of 30 i to 50 animals or even

    more, but most of the bands will number only from 5 to 10 full y - grown adults and


            When calves are caught it is necessary to shoot all the old animals.

    The hunters will always pick out small herds with as many calves as possible ,

    because a big herd cannot be handled as easily as a small one (the old ones

    have to be shot down fast), and naturally, we wish to kill as few ovibos as

    possible. The meat of the killed animals is used on board ship.

            The number of old animals shot by calf-hunting Norwegian sealers and

    others has been grossly exaggerated. As mentioned above, the taking of small

    herds is likely to give the best results, and the relatively small crews of

    the sealers would not be able to deal with too many animals. Thus it can be

    said that on an average 3 or 4 grown animals are killed for every calf caught.

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    As a rule only yearlings or younger calves are taken. The older ones are

    too strong and too unruly.

            When the old animals have been shot down, the calves will as a rul e stay

    by their mothers, where they are rather easily caught and tied. Then they are

    led or carried down to the boat at the beach and taken aboard ship. Some

    of the small bulls are real fighters, but the heifers are easy to handle.

            On board the sealer, the calves are placed inside a fence or in wooden

    cages. Here they stay during the passage back to Norway. They are fed on

    grass collected along the Greenland beaches or on hay of mountain grass

    brought from Norway. After a few days the animals are tame as sheep. They

    will eat out of one's hand and cry for bread and biscuits. The ship's rolling

    does not bother them in the least. From the quayside in Norway they are

    transported in wooden cages.

            Since 1929 several attempts have been made to domesticate ovibos from

    northeast Greenland in different parts of the world: Alaska, Iceland, Spitsbergen,

    and Norway. The Alaskan attempt will be dealt with elsewhere. (x-ref)? ?

            In 1929, the Icelandic Government sent an expedition to northeast Greenland

    to try to catch a number of calves for domestication in Iceland. The result

    was 7 calves, but having been allowed to graze on cultivated and thus over-rich

    grass they all died that same fall.

            In the summer of 1929, a Norwegian Government expedition caught 10 calves

    in the districts south of Hold with Ho l p e, northeast Greenland. These were

    brought to Spitsbergen together with 7 ovibos others pu r chased from the two skippers

    Paul Lillenes and Peder Andresen, who with their motor - cutters Kap Flora and

    Saelbarden had caught a relatively great number of calves to meet an American

    order for their transfer to Alaska.

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            Thus 17 musk-ox calves were placed at Adventfjorden, west Spitsbergen,

    on September 24, 1929. A law of general protection was passed in the

    Council on September 20. Several bales of mountain hay were laid out at

    an old mining house in Adventfjorden, and all the calves remained there

    during the winter. In subsequent years they spread over the small peninsula between

    Isfjorden and Bellsund. The first new calves, , at least 4, born in Spits–

    bergen were observed in the spring of 1932. The original herd consisted of

    9 cows and 8 bulls.

            The ovibos thrived very well in Spitsbergen together with the native

    reindeer. Although a few animals undoubtedly were killed by poachers and some

    died from other causes, it was estimated that in 1940 the number was from

    70 to 80. This was, indeed, a much better result than was expected, as

    Spitsbergen has a more humid climate than northeast Greenland.

            Then came the war, and during the years 1942-45 a relatively great number

    of ovibos was killed both by Norwegian and German soldiers. We do not know

    yet what may be left of the stock, but we do know that there are not many

    ovibos on Sp it sbergen today. It is planned, however, to have some new

    calves transferred from northeast Greenland.

            The calves brought to the mountains of Norway have been sufficiently near

    to make close observations. In 1913 1931 Captain B.H. Olsvik on MIC Pil caught 10 ?

    calves in northeast Greenland and brought them to his home in western

    Norway. To begin with he kept them in a barn and fed them on hay, but

    after a while they sickened "just like men suffering from scurvy." He

    then placed them in the open, so that they could feed on whatever they could

    find — grass and willow — and they soon recovered. This district has a very

    mild climate.

            Captain Olsvik's calves were sold to the Norwegian Government and turned

    loose at Snöhetta in the Dovre Mountains in the spring of 1932. No information

    is available as to how many bulls and heifers were o i n the lot.

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    Dovre should be a much better habitat for ovibus than northeast Greenland.

    In fact the mountain grass is so rich that the farmers keep their cows up

    there on small farms during the summer; and the ovibos' main winter food,

    the willow, which in northeast Greenland is a creeping plant, in Dovre, attains to the

    height of a man in Dovre, . It was, in fact, h f ear e d that the pastures there

    might be too rich and that the calves might founder, which was not the case,


            In the spring of 1934 four ovibos perished in an avalanche of snow in Drivadalen. The dead

    animals, upon examination, proved to be fat and well fed - this at a time

    when their counterparts in Greenland would be just skin and bones.

            In the fall of 1938 , the author brought two calves from northeast Greenland

    to Dovre - a little cow and a yearling bull.

            The ovibos in Dovre, though they had freedom to roam far and wide over

    Norway's mountainous inland, did not, but stayed in the Dovre district, forming

    a great attraction for the tourists. The farmers did not mind having them

    there, and not infrequently ovibos would mingle with the native cattle and

    followed them home to the barn. We know of only one fight between an ovibos

    and a native bull, and in that the ovibos' tactics, being so different, he

    was the loser.

            Ovibos have not been known to cross with domesticated cattle, even when every

    facility for doing so existed. We had no luck in any of our attempts to cross ovibos and domesticated cattle. However, this experience showed that the

    herds of ovibos could exist side by side with the native herds, and it was

    observed that the ovibos became gentle and tame. The farmers collected ovibos

    wool in the field and used it together with shee [ ?] wool, but they did not like

    it too well because it did not shrink. This was a pity, they said, as it was

    the nicest kind of wool they had ever seen.

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    In 1943 there were 15 ovibos in the Dov [ ?] e Mountains, but the next

    year all of them were shot food by Germans.

            As the leader of a Government expedition to northeast Greenland in the

    summer of 1947, the author carried an order to try to catch some new calves

    for transference to the Dovre Mountains. The authorities in different parts

    of the country also applied for calves for their districts. However, the

    8 calves brought back were all taken to Dovre. These were yearlings, 4 bulls and 4 heifers.

            In December 1947 it was reported that a small and extremely [ ?] bull calf

    had been found dead near one of the summer - farms. As this little one had stayed

    alone at the farm all through the fall (it loved people) it had apparently

    eaten something poisonous outside the houses. In January, 1948, it was

    reported that another calf had been found dead, and it must be assumed that

    it had been killed by a wolverine.

            As to the fate of the remaining 6 calves, we shall have to wait until

    summer. Because of the rather hard winter, mountain hay has been laid out in

    various places. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have kept the calves coralled

    down in the valley during the first winter.

            Based upon the experiences the author and others have had with ovibos

    in captivity, it can be said that the question of nourishment seems to be the most

    important, climate much less so. These animals are very hardy. They have been

    seen soaked in sea water d uring a very rough crossing of the P p olar S s ea, and they

    neither showed signs of discomfort nor did it damage their health. Their legs,

    however, seem to be easily broken.

            It has, however, happened in Norway, as in Iceland that musk-ox calves, let

    loose on cultivated pastures, ate themselves to death. Now it may be that or other character the lushness of the grass

    in itself was at fault; or it may be simply that the animals overate, unused to

    such abundance - as do our cattle and horses. It is possible too, that the

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    pasture [ ?] land was infected with some contagious disease against which

    the native cattle are immune. This has been much discussed.

            In the author's opinion it will be wise not to look to one single

    cause of so many deaths. Nevertheless, clearly , food is the most important

    issue. We have learned from experience that no trouble occurs when the

    calves are fed on mountain grass, or hay from such grass. This fact does

    not prove that all the calves mentioned have died because of the character

    of cultivated pasture land; [ ?] but it does indicate that the type s of pasture

    is an important factor. It may be, though, that there are some special

    sorts of plants which the ovibos cannot tolerate. We have seen, on the

    other hand, that calves can eat bread and biscuits without harm. It will,

    in the author's opinion be advisable in the future to stick to the safest diet

    and to keep the calves well away from other animals upon their arrival in a

    civilized country. I feel that it is especially important to keep the calves

    away from fields that have been artificially manured.

            It has been said very often that the ovibos is a wild and dangerous

    animal, unsafe in captivity. How the full- grown ovibos behave I do not know, but

    I myself have had a one- year -and-a-half-year-old cow follow me like a dog

    for months. A three-year-old bull was once kept at a Danish hunting station

    in northeast Greenland, and it became so dependent on its human friends that

    it did not dare to leave the station alone. Equally old Norwegian domestic bulls are certainly

    far from gentle and they can be more dangerous and wild than any ovibos, even a

    wild one.

            The author sincerely hopes that new attempts will be made to acclimatize

    ovibos in the United States and other countries, as well as in Norway and

    Spitsbergen. We now know how to handle the problems, and are confident we shall

    succeed in creating new stocks of these interesting animals in countries where

    in pre - historic times they roamed. Trial should also be made at real

    in pre-historic domestication.




    John Giaver

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