Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Greenland Ovibos in Captivity and Under Domestication: Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Greenland Ovibos in Captivity and Under Domestication

(View Page Image)



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.

(View Page Image)
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.

(View Page Image)
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.

(View Page Image)
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.

(View Page Image)
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.

(View Page Image)
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

(View Page Image)
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
HomeGreenland Ovibos in Captivity and Under Domestication : Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only