Migrant muskox

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give the Rachel Carson Center Lunchtime Colloquium talk. The video of the full talk is available online.

My talk entitled “Naturalised national identities: Migrant muskox in northern nature” took as its departure point studies of human migration, which have received a lot of attention in the past decade. Scholars have been interested in understanding the push/pull forces behind human migrations, whether they are willing or forced, and how the recipient communities have accepted (or not) the immigrants. The concept of “environmental migration” has even been used to describe human migration due to environmental change or stress events like hurricanes or earthquakes.

But these studies have always limited themselves to the human condition. Animal migration, on the other hand, has been a biological studies inquiry concerned with population dynamics and predictive models of migration numbers and paths. So I wanted to broaden the approach and ask how thinking in terms of human migration studies might illuminate what happens to the muskoxen that move from East Greenland to Norway and Sweden.

The first part of my talk focused on the capture of live calves in East Greenland from 1899 to 1969. Over those 70 years, at least 290 calves were captured and brought to Norway. Of that total, 70 were used in domestication projects, 75 were set free in the wild, and the rest were either sold to zoos or died before they could be sold or released.

I talked about the process of capturing these calves, which at first glance might sound relatively harmless. In reality, it was a bloodbath. In order to capture calves alive and avoid injury to the human hunters, all of the adults in the herd were shot first. And in many cases, the calves still ended up escaping, sometimes led off by surviving adults and sometimes on their own. A passage from Gustaf Kolthoff’s Til Spetsbergen och Nordöstra Gråonland år 1900 is a powerful narrative of the muskox slaughter:

In the company of Ostergren, Levin, Kjell and some of my most hearty men, I rowed then ashore, where we went around the animals and approached them so that they found themselves between us and the sea. As soon as they became aware of us, they stood immediately in a protective ring, and calves took their place among the elderly. So the magnificent animals lowered their heads threatening to turn against us, and when we reached them at good shooting range, I asked Kjell to shoot first. He hit a bull in the forehead, who fell instantly. At that moment I shot one, and a third went to Levin’s shot. Now the other animals took to flight, but in that instant a big bull got a bullet from my second gun, with the result that he drove his horns into the ground, did a somersault and tumbled dead near the embankment down to the beach. Only two cows escaped in the company of the calves.

I now switched out the double paradox rifle with the mauserstudsaren and thus brought down one cow, while Kjell shot down the other. The calves then stopped and became encircled by us, and I was sure to catch them, then unfortunately one of the men became too eager and rushed at them, with the result that the already quite calm calves broke out through our line and fled to the mountains.

(page 179, my translation)

Muskox calf with a dead adult on East Greenland. Reproduced in Alwin Pedersen, Der Moschusochs (1958)
Muskox calf with a dead adult on East Greenland. Reproduced in Alwin Pedersen, Der Moschusochs (1958)

If we think of the capture of live calves in parallel ways to human migrations, we realise that this event is a forced relocation. The unwilling animals are being captured, dragged away from their families (who are now in all likelihood dead), taken to another part of the world, and set free into newly constructed herds of all young animals. While I want to avoid the trap of anthropomorphising the muskox, to ignore the reality of its capture and relocation is just as dangerous. I think it is important to think about the means that were taken to justify the ends in this case. The historical actors thought it was important to bring muskox to Scandinavia for release into the wild (particularly as a conservation measure for the species) or for domestication for economic benefit. The actions that were taken to accomplish that end had a real affect, both the muskoxen in East Greenland that died and the calves that were forcibly removed and relocated.

At the end of the paper, I offered some reflections about how the histories of the muskox in Scandinavia reveals a tension between animals as individuals and animals as a species when on the move. The muskox migration happens on an individual level: muskox calves were forcibly taken from their herds; a lone muskox attacks a human; and a small herd of muskoxen chose to immigrate to Sweden. At the same time, humans primarily talk about the migrant muskoxen at a species level: muskoxen will be used in new economic production; all resident muskoxen are targeted as potential transgressors; and the Swedish state takes up the question of whether the muskox is truly a Swedish animal. Not unlike human migrations which happen through the choices of individuals but are often categorized by groups or races—news reports cover the migration of North Africans or Roma as if membership in the group erases individuality—the muskox exists as a “race”, a species which can be legislated and discussed in the abstract. This tendency to talk about animals as species or groups hides the stories of the individuals, in this case individual calves who were forced to move.

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