Increasingly, Tony Gorn is getting the call: Musk oxen are here, the caller says. And off he goes to shoo away the wild, shaggy beasts from places in the Western Alaska town of Nome where they're not supposed to be.
"You get a couple people and you start walking towards them and you clap your hands and get their attention and you get them turned and get them walking," Gorn, a state wildlife biologist, said of the animals Wednesday. "You literally walk them out."
Musk oxen have been a common sight for the past few years in the Bering Sea coastal community of 3,700, where residents once had to drive a distance to catch a glimpse of them. Now they frequent edges of town, including residential subdivisions. So far they haven't made it to the main hub of Nome, which includes the finish line of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but they've been seen approaching the airport runway, which is especially worrisome to Gorn.
About 200 musk oxen reside within five miles of town out of the 289 counted in the greater Nome area, Gorn said. Despite the greater presence around Nome, the total population in the area is declining.
Big animals with long, drooping horns, musk oxen have not shown aggression toward people but they have attacked dogs, including Sarah Swartz's 11-year-old German shepherd, Cole. The 33-year-old nurse, frantic to get her dog to safety, shot at the musk ox three times before it moved into brush.
Cole was gored in the chest and required stitches but is doing well. Swartz's 1-year-old mixed breed, Wilson, was unhurt but terrified.
The Aug. 4 attack occurred about 10 p.m. after Swartz let the dogs out to "do their business," she said. She heard Wilson bark strangely; then Cole barked and yelped.
Swartz ran to the door and saw a musk ox where Cole should have been tethered to a long chain. Swartz yelled at the animal, trying to get it to leave, but it wouldn't budge. That's when she got the rifle and shot it with small-caliber bullets that probably didn't kill it, she said. By then a neighbor had called police.
Cole, unleashed in the attack, was hiding under the porch. Police called a local veterinarian who treated the bleeding dog that night.
Like other residents, Swartz loves musk oxen, finds them prehistorically fascinating and enjoys having them around. At the same time, they're becoming a nuisance, grazing in yards and hurting pets.
"This is their natural habitat," she said. "But this is my home too."
Gorn and Claudia Ihl, who has studied the animals for years, can only speculate why musk oxen are sticking close to town. There are excellent feeding grounds and fewer predators, and they've been safe from local hunters, although this year the state issued hunting permits for five musk oxen in an area just outside the city. It was a first.
"This is safe territory for them and they know this," said Ihl, an assistant biology professor at the Nome campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Perhaps in time, she said, the hunts will show the musk oxen that "people are no longer safe."