Musk ox gores prized sled dog

KOTZEBUE AREA: Bulls are going into the rut, and they're getting pretty feisty.

August 28, 2008 

A musk ox raging through Cyrus Harris' dog yard took two shots from a high-powered rifle before turning on the musher, who squeezed off another round as the foundering beast tripped on some brush and fell just short of plowing him down.

Harris, his wife and child were uninjured, but one of the three dogs cornered during the mid-afternoon confrontation was gored in the stomach outside the residence at Sheshalik Spit, about 12 miles out of Kotzebue.

"Musk ox come and go every so often and we're fortunate that they were able to leave us alone as we leave them alone, but this one just so happened to have a mind of its own, and it was crazy," said Harris, 51. "I'm just going to have to shoot first and talk later next time to avoid any more injuries."

The attack took place Sunday in an open yard where the sprint-race musher keeps his animals chained to posts near their dog houses. Harris said he's never needed a fence before.

But this time, while he was out checking fish nets in a lagoon about a mile away, Harris heard his dogs going wild. He rushed back to find one of his dogs, Snoopy, already cornered by the hulking, shaggy beast.

The roughly 700-pound animal charged, goring Snoopy, a prized lead dog. Harris grabbed his .30-06 rifle and ran toward the yard in time to see the musk ox bull turn on a second dog and charge.

That dog was able to dodge away, but the musk ox plowed through its metal post and sent it flying, freeing the dog. When the musk ox turned and charged a third dog, Harris shot and brought the animal to the ground.

But not for long.

The musk ox got right back on its feet and Harris pumped another round into its shoulder.

"He went down again, but then he just came right back up, looked at me and then went after me," Harris said. "I only had enough time to point the rifle really quick at him and get off another shot and then ran toward the house from there. Even after that third shot on him, he continued right at me."

The musher was out of rounds. But on the way to the house, he crossed some brush that slowed the animal, now appearing woozy from the three rifle blasts.

The chase sputtered out, and Harris went inside, reloaded, and finished the bull off just about 50 feet from his doorstep.

Then he called Alaska Wildlife Trooper Eric Lorring, based in Kotzebue, to report the encounter. Lorring told him to salvage the meat from the muskox, which appeared to have been taken legally in defense of life and property. The State of Alaska seized the head, horns and hide to be auctioned off at Fur Rondy, Lorring said.

Harris, who works for a local traditional food program, had the meat curing in a cooler Tuesday and planned to deliver it to the senior center in Kotzebue for the elders' use.

Snoopy had been stuck in the belly during the attack, but none of the other dogs was seriously injured beyond bumps and bruises, Harris said. The injured dog appeared to be recovering well.

"He seemed to look like he's going to pull through," he said. "I'm going to have to keep my hopes up that he'll be able to go out and race again, but the most fortunate thing is I'm able to keep him alive."

Musk ox attack more often than you'd think, Lorring said. The bulls are beginning to rut this time of year, and are getting ornery. The village of Deering, with a large herd in the area, has attacks such as this happen much more frequently, Lorring said.

"We've actually had dogs that were actually killed by musk ox. Individuals who were charged by them while they were berry picking," Lorring said. "This is just not the time of year to be out and about due to the rut and everything of that nature. "

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, "battles between bull musk oxen during the rut are spectacular and violent contests." Musk ox skulls are heavily armored, with four inches of horn and three inches of bone directly over the brain in the area of contact.

They don't seek out confrontation with humans, but when people and pets cross paths with them, problems arise -- particularly during the rut, said Jim Dau, Kotzebue-area wildlife biologist.

"Maybe they want to tussle with something and dogs are -- if there's no other bull there -- maybe dogs will suffice for now," Dau said. "But from what I've heard, it's not so much that they're out cruising and looking for a fight, it's just that they're pretty unresponsive to things that would normally scare them."

The musk ox are part of the Cape Thompson population of about 300 animals. Often, they try to slip through fish camps and villages at night on their way to the coast, where cooler temperatures, tasty grass and the prospect of cows in heat await.

But if cornered, their typical response is to hold their ground and charge if threatened, Dau said. The biggest problem is often people and dogs getting too close. When they charge, pounding hooves and bark-like grunts easily intimidate, but it's often a bluff, said Dau, who has first-hand experience.

"Your response to musk ox is just the opposite of what it should be for bears," he said. "All I do is what comes naturally: I tuck my tail, turn around and run like hell, and the bull immediately goes back into the group. He doesn't want to kill me, he doesn't want to eat me, he doesn't want to hurt me. He just wants me away."


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589. Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call her at 257-4390.

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