Place: Large Animal Research Station University of Alaska Fairbanks
When Asher mentioned offhandedly that we were visiting “some big animal place,” I imagined standing alone circled within hundreds of galloping reindeer. In fact, the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station had all their reindeer in use for research, they did have 34 caribou (the reindeer’s undomesticated cousin), and 19 Musk Ox. Although my reindeer whispering fantasy did not come true, I did spend a good chunk of time within feet of the various animals as they snacked on lichen and willow branches.
Our tour guide, Sarah, was an energetic 24 year old intern who is working towards her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After living within the Alaskan ecosystem for about a year, she has amassed a great deal of knowledge about all of the wildlife there, which was evident throughout the tour.
Not only is she able to view Musk Ox and Caribou in “rare pristine habitat” at the center, she also regularly spots Moose and other wildlife near her house in Goldstream, a distinct area of Fairbanks. Although she mentioned it offhandedly, the life she lives here differs greatly from the lifestyle she enjoyed during her childhood in Richmond, Virginia. Currently Sarah resides in a “dry cabin,” meaning there is no running water, which is evidently pretty common in Alaska, and is learning to deal with the harsh weather which affects every aspect of life in the area. “I was sort of the black sheep in my family,” Sarah laughs. At first her mother laughed when she revealed her plan to change her major, for the third time, and transfer to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and told her not to joke like that.
A year later she is here in Fairbanks, after surviving an Alaskan winter and feeling her nose hairs freeze for the first time, with the goal of eventual employment at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She splits time working as a tour guide and behind the scenes with the animals that she loves at a place that she loves. “A lot of other places you are looking to fix things that have gone wrong, and here you are trying to preserve and continue things the way that they are supposed to be.”
When asked about her favorite animal on the farm, Sarah responded with a definite “Caribou,” because they are calm and intelligent animals, especially when compared to the domesticated Reindeer, which the humans have got to. The Musk Ox, however, are the only animals on the farm that remember the workers. “Each week we pull the (Musk Ox) calves for socialization. The moms are always meaner to you if you helped pull the calf that week.” Although the Musk Ox were amazing to see up close, the animals might have won Sarah’s number one spot if you could tip them similarly to cows. So far she hasn’t tried, but she advised me that Ox tipping would not be a very good idea. There’s a first for everything!