Havoc in the herd: Administration responds to muskoxen deaths

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
May 3, 2011

Pregnant muskox at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Recently LARS has experienced the deaths of 11 muskoxen. The farm is now depending on this spring's crop of calves to repopulate the herd. April 27, 2011. Heather Bryant/Sun Star

Laura Davis holds up a yellow shield as she watches six very pregnant muskox cows at the Large Animal Research Station (LARS). The muskoxen can be ornery when expecting. The shield makes her look bigger. She’s seen the herd go through some dramatic changes in her time at LARS.

Seven months ago, fatal malnutrition struck the station’s muskoxen. Eleven muskoxen in the 36-animal herd died between September and January. The signs trail back decades. The administration treats the tragedy as a symptom of a widespread problem across the animal care system at UAF. The muskoxen are recovering while UAF hammers out the details of an overhaul. This would ensure that the system responds efficiently to the animals should widespread death strike again.

As summer nears, the muskoxen remain under the care of Veterinary Services while they attempt to regain their ideal weight. Despite management changes that have left the station understaffed, UAF officials have decided that summer tours will resume in June. They have not yet decided whether the muskoxen are ready to return to research this year.

The muskoxen shivered during November’s freezing rains. John Blake, UAF’s attending veterinarian, had never seen a muskox shiver. If you pat a muskox’s coat, it springs back, stuffed with insulating qiviut. These animals’ coats were flat, brittle, and red.

Now the herd is stable, Blake said. The animals have all the right vitamins and minerals in their systems, they have better appetites and qiviut fluffs their coats once more. Two bulls, Franklin and Habanero, are the only animals on the watch list today.

The herd’s illness has been around for at least 20 years, Blake said. Muskoxen eat hay, but LARS also feeds them small mineral boosts, which aren’t always enough.

Over the years, low levels of cobalt and copper occasionally kill muskoxen. Cobalt deficiencies lead to liver failure. Copper affects immunity, joints, nervous systems and blood cells.

When deficient, animals lose fat, act lethargic and their coats turn reddish. In response, Blake ramped up mineral doses through concentrated supplements and shots.

The muskoxen recovered, but there is a hole in the herd.

“We don’t have any young animals anymore,” Blake said.

Despite the nutrient disorder and two miscarriages, seven cows are ready to give birth during the coming weeks. In 2009, only two cows got pregnant and no calves survived. Blake attributes that to nutrition. Reproduction research in 2009 could have impacted mating, but similar studies worked well in the past, Blake said.

During the first rain of the year, staffer Laura Davis watched the muskoxen run in circles. The crack of Franklin and Habanero head butting occasionally pierced the silence.

The animals look and act better but these improvements come with a price — $20,000 for diagnostics, not including two expert visits, the new diet and veterinary management, Blake said.

The tragedy caused the administration to turn its gaze toward the university animal-care system, seeking a second opinion from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

John Blake has a lot of jobs. The associate vice chancellor for research leads Veterinary Services, LARS, and sits on the compliance-driven Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

Blake kept up with animal care laws, so the university made him both veterinarian and policeman, IACUC chair Kelly Drew said. Blake’s many jobs make it difficult for employees to know how to approach him.

Dorcas O’Rourke, AAALAC representative, wrote an unofficial report on the state of UAF animal care after visiting in December.

Pregnant muskox at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The farm is depending on this spring's crop of calves to repopulate the herd. April 27, 2011. Heather Bryant/Sun Star

O’Rourke interviewed animal care employees around the state. The muskoxen tragedy “stood out” from other problems, Drew said. The O’Rourke report outlined three concerns: organization, communication and staffing. It doesn’t mention which of these problems occurred at LARS.

Megan Hahn remembers the station’s staffing problems. When the university asked her supervisor to step down last year – Blake said he does not know why – student employees filled the vacuum left by him and other departures, she said. They did not have time to do regular tasks, such as fertilization or data entry. “It seemed like the staffing dropped below what it should have been,” Blake said.

O’Rourke recommends the university centralize and streamline a system that spreads across the state.

IACUC responded to the O’Rourke report. They suggested Veterinary Services take over day-to-day care, leaving the policing to the committee.

University officials will write a final plan this summer.

Eleven muskoxen died last year because their mineral levels dipped from marginal to fatal. This problem has been around for years, manifesting differently in each animal. Although LARS once had a full-time caregiver, now the station is under the guidance of a swamped veterinarian.

The administration has slashed animal care funding, O’Rourke wrote. Facilities cut staff to compensate, and this leads to stretched management. Daily care-giving duties could slip through the cracks.

“It’s not like it was anybody’s fault, the system was set up poorly and now we have a chance to fix it,” Drew said.

In a month, seven muskoxen calves could take their place in the herd, and their lives will be in the shaky hands of a changing animal care system.

Extended Coverage of Large Animal Research Station (LARS) Muskoxen Deaths

In addition to interviews with past and present staff, faculty and animal care officials; this extended coverage includes a multimedia timeline, documents and graphics.

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