The muskoxen were as excited about their new home as their new owners were at their arrival.
About 10 years ago Karen Holden and her partner Mel Bolen were asked whether they’d be interested in taking care of a small herd of eight muskoxen. The animals had been part of a research project at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The project was completed, and the muskoxen needed a retirement home.
“We were thrilled,” says Karen. “It was a perfect fit.” She and Mel had recently purchased 200 acres of land east of their home place near Humboldt, and were puzzling over how to utilize the land without investing thousands of dollars in farm equipment. Mel is a renowned ceramic artist; Karen a portrait painter.
The muskoxen were as excited about their new home as their new owners were at their arrival. “They just took off, running with excitement, snorting and growling. They were so happy to be out and about.
“These muskoxen have been wonderful, beautiful animals, extremely easy to take care of thanks to the special care and gentle handling of veterinarian Dr. Peter Flood and his students. We’ve had many interesting adventures with them,” Karen says.
Muskoxen are closely related to goats. Full-grown males weigh about 500 pounds; females are around 300 to 350 pounds. These animals have extremely wide heads and strong necks. In the wild, they gather in groups of about 10 to 20, and form a protective circle around their young when threatened with predators such as bears or wolves. Muskoxen have a very thick coat with a hairy layer on the outside and a woolly layer underneath. The fleece, called qiviut, is said to be eight times warmer than wool, and is highly prized.
One of the animals’ favourite games is hide and seek, Karen says. “I’ll hide somewhere in the tall grass in their pasture, and call for them to come and find me. They’ll go flying all over the place looking for me, making low growling sounds, calling for me. Sometimes they’ll split up and look. Then when they find me, they’ll sometimes act as if I’m not there. They like to show off. One of the girls, Victoria, will go racing full speed around and around, then stop in front of me with her tongue hanging out. Or she’ll stop, look at me and smash into a tree over and over again. They love plowing down trees or smashing into one another. But they never touch me. In fact, they can be quite affectionate. If they get out of the pasture, it’s easy to bring them back — they come when we call them,” Karen says.
The couple converted the loft of the barn on their property into an art studio where Karen paints and conducts workshops during the summer. Large north-and south-facing windows in the studio make for a bright, cheery workplace. “It’s a beautiful space, quiet and tranquil,” Karen says. A small cottage, also on their property, has been turned into a retreat for anyone looking for a break from life’s hectic pace. “I’ve had everybody from single moms to people finishing their PhDs, to artists, poets and writers come.
“I love being out here. Art and nature is what feeds my soul. Sometimes if I’m having a bad day, going out to be among the girls, as I call them, is quite therapeutic. I’ll go and sit with them and pretty soon they’re doing something silly to make me laugh.”
To visit the couple’s North Star Gallery located on their property, call (306) 682-3223 for an appointment.
Edna Manning writes from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan