Despite earlier claims that everything was hunky-dory this fall at the Willow kennel of Dallas Seavey, a four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it has now emerged that there was an apparent dog-abuse problem.
The revelation comes surprisingly from none other than Jen Seavey, the wife of the Iditarod champ. A letter she wrote in October reveals she fired a dog handler because she believed he was abusing dogs.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials obtained the letter during an investigation into accusations of abuse at the kennel. The investigation cleared the Seaveys.
But in a letter to dog handler Whiskey Miller, Jen informs the young man he is being “terminated due to concerns regarding your treatment of our dogs on a training run reported to us by another handler at the kennel. While neither Dallas, myself, or kennel manager Jesse Salyer has personally witnessed you practicing inappropriate discipline or rough training methods, this report has concerned us considerably.”
Miller’s girlfriend, Hanna Hurt who goes by the name Hanna Rose, said in an email today that she was fired along with Miller, even though she contends there was no inappropriate discipline or rough training.
“These claims, in a series of bizarre events, ultimately led to our dismissal from the Seavey kennel, despite the claims carrying no evidence nor, quite frankly, any truth,” she wrote. “That said, we understand the current climate within the dog sledding industry in regards to the anti-mushing community and that rumors, big or small, are not taken lightly.”
The email exchange ended when she was asked about Jen’s reference to Miller getting a “negative reference” from a previous employer, and why Jen would fire Miller if she thought the claim against him was a bogus statement from an animal-rights activist.
The Seavey handler who started this all of this is identified in borough records as Abigayil Crowder. She has not dealt in rumors. She has flatly said she saw Miller manhandling dogs. Crowder walked out of the Seavey kennel at the end of October and filed a complaint with MatSu animal control alleging abuse.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – a radical, California, animal-rights organization critical of the Iditarod – rushed to support Crowder, and the Seaveys subsequently attacked the young woman as a PETA plant.
“This complaint was filed by PETA in conjunction with a woman who had been working at our kennel as an entry-level handler since early September,” Jen posted on the “Dallas Seavey” Facebook page on Nov. 7. “A few hours before it was filed she abruptly packed her things and left the kennel citing ‘a family emergency.’ It seems we were the target of an organized attempt by anti-mushing activists.”
The complaint, however, was not filed by PETA. The MatSu recorded Crowder calling to “report sick and dying puppies and other abuse occurring at the dog kennels.”
Craigmedred.news interviewed Crowder hours after she left the Seavey kennel and before PETA entered the discussion. Her experiences at the kennel were recounted in a Nov. 2 story reporting MatSu animal control had cleared the Seavey kennel of any wrong doing. Her background was probed in a Nov. 8 story.
Crowder was not identified in either of those stories. She was at the time staying with a friend in Fairbanks, and both she and her friend, along with some others, expressed fears Crowder could be in some danger if her name was known. Whether the threat was real or imagined is impossible to determine.
The Iditarod is an iconic sporting event in Alaska, and the 30-year-old Dallas was the race’s brightest start until he was discovered to have a doped dog team in Nome this year. Dallas has repeatedly denied any responsibility for that doping, and has hired a high-power, San Fransisco public relations firm to investigate in hopes of clearing his name.
Crowder is now reported to be back in the Lower 48, and her name is being disclosed here in the wake of the Borough publicly revealing it in a release of public documents. Craigmedred.news has been unable to find any connection between Crowder, a veteran dog handler from Colorado, and PETA predating her issues with the Seaveys.
In an interview, she sounded like many young people who come north with bright eyes and big sled-dog dreams.
“I always wanted to run the Iditarod,” she said.
A couple of weeks at the Seavey kennel pretty much took the shine off that idea. Almost immediately, Crowder encountered Miller handling dogs in ways to which she was unaccustomed.
“Whiskey will abuse the dogs,” she said. “He chokes and beats them. It’s horrible.
“I yelled at him once, and he stopped doing it.”
Crowder told kennel manager Salyer what was going on, and Crowder said, “she told Whiskey to knock it off.” Crowder said she never again saw Miller abusing dogs, but suspected his behavior continued when she wasn’t around.
Miller remained at the kennel. Jen’s letter indicates he was not fired until Oct. 30. Crowder reported the Seavey kennel to the MatSu borough three days earlier on Oct. 27
Crowder said she went to work at the Seavey kennel on Sept. 4., and by the “second week of being here, I realized, ‘My God, this place is horrible.’ It got worse.”
What concerned her most was the regular death of puppies born at the kennel. Natural mortality is often quite high among puppies, according to veterinarians. An Australian study that looked specifically at puppy deaths in kennels reported an overall death rate of 18.5 percent.
“The death of live born, apparently normal pups, in the neonatal period accounted for 5.7 percent of all pups born and 31.2 percent of the total mortality,” the study said. “Over half these losses were attributed to fading puppy syndrome. The remainder was due to mismothering / mismanagement and other miscellaneous causes.”
A significant number of dead puppies would be normal and expected in a kennel birthing dozens of puppies per year.
“I’ve seen so many dead puppies in the last couple months,” Crowder said. “They let seven puppies die from one litter.”
Seavey family members have suggested some of the puppies might have belonged to people other than Jen and Dallas. Dallas’s brother Danny, a fellow dog musher, has said Jen is known for trying help others with puppies sick with parvo by treating them with homeopathic remedies.
Canine parvo is a highly contagious viral disease. Puppies are most vulnerable to the virus from age six weeks to six months, according to the American Kennel Club. Vaccination against parvo is recommended at six to 14 weeks.
The virus is hard to control in busy kennels. It “is resistant to heat, cold, humidity, and drying, and can survive in the environment for long periods of time,” notes the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Even trace amounts of feces from an infected dog may harbor the virus and infect other dogs that come into the infected environment. The virus is readily transmitted from place to place on the hair or feet of dogs or via contaminated cages, shoes, or other objects.”
The AVMA stresses the importance of kennel hygiene and vaccinations. Veteran Alaska musher Joe Runyan, however, raised questions about the quality of some parvo vaccines in his 2003 book “Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers.”
Runyan is a past winner of both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. During his time in Alaska, he oversaw the births and rearing of hundreds of sled-dog puppies.
He reported solving his parvo problems while living in rural Alaska by building elevated puppy pens. He got the idea, he wrote, from Delmar Smith, a legendary bird-dog trainer.
“Delmar and his sons ran a big, professional kennel, wash-down concrete runs and so on, and housed a considerable number of bird dogs for training,” Runyan wrote. Ryan toured Smith’s Oklahoma facility and noted raised pens with wire floors.
“When I questioned Delmar about it,” Runyan said, “he kind of looked at me like Luigi that just got off the boat. Everybody knows this is the cleanest way to raise pups….People always ask if the wire on the floor bothers the pups feet. I don’t think it does. One thing for sure, all of the crap goes through the wire and onto the ground. Rain, sleet or snow, the pups are immaculately clean. It made a big difference on the appearance and health of the pups.”
Though the Seavey kennel got a clean bill of health from the MatSu Borough, which regulates dog kennels to “livestock” standards, other mushers have noted it is not the sort of neat and clean facility once run by Runyan or now run by borough Mayor Vern Halter, another musher.
A self-described military brat, the 23-year-old Crowder grew up on the move among U.S. air bases. She still lists her home as the family residence in what is described as a semi-ghost town in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She used to work for a woman who runs a sled-dog tour business near there.
Like most dog handlers in Alaska, she was young and adventurous. A Facebook friend in Willow helped hook her up with the Seaveys because of shared interests in sled dogs.
“I believed that Dallas was a good person,” Crowder said, and that she could learn a lot by working for him.
Miller and Hurt/Rose arrived at the Seavey kennel by following a similar path. The couple met while working with dogs at Krabloonik Mountain Dining and Dogsledding in Snowmass, Colo. – not far from the Lucky Cat Dog Farm in Gunnison, Colo., where Crowder got her start.
Hunt/Rose said sled dogs are the main interest in their life. Krabloonik has a checkered history. It features heavily in the documentary “Sled Dogs,” a movie that is critical of sled-dog tour operations and raises questions about the Iditarod.
Krabloonik was originally owned by Iditarod veteran Dan MacEachen, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to animal abuse. He was accused of starving six dogs and refusing to seek veterinary care for two badly in need of medical treatment.
“Few people have simultaneously frightened me, infuriated me, and garnered such profound respect from me,” Hurt/Rose posted on her Facebook page at the time. “I am glad I was able to know him for as short and tumultuous as our relationship may have been. Without the opportunities he and Krabloonik provided me when I was young and dumb, I would not be where I am today — young and dumb but with the clarity of mind to ‘not complicate shit’ and carry on.”
It is unclear whether Krabloonik is the “previous employer” Jen’s letter references as providing a “negative reference.” Equally unclear is to why the Seaveys only checked references after problems allegedly arose with Miller.
Miller’s Facebook page indicates he left Krabloonik earlier this year to take the job with the Seaveys. A week ago, in a text exchange on Facebook, he responded to a question about his firing by asking for “a link to said letter. There have been a lot of conflicting rumours going around in relation to my involvement with the dog sledding industry, so I’m hesitant to make any statements without being sure of the details.”
He was sent a copy of the letter. He did not respond to subsequent text messages until today when he sent a text apologizing and saying he did “feel the urge to elaborate a bit on the progression of events.” He asked for an email at which to respond. The Hurt/Rose emails followed.
The Seaveys have not responded to repeated requests for comment since Oct. 17 when Danny, Dallas’s brother and the son of defending champ Mitch Seavey, texted a message saying, “not that you care, but it’s not Mitch or Dallas.”
The message was a reaction to an Iditarod report of that date that a dog team belonging to an unnamed musher had been discovered to be doped after the finish of the 1,000-mile “Last Great Race” in Nome this year.
Six days later, with other mushers angry that the failure to name names damned them all, the Iditarod revealed the musher was Dallas. He said then his team had to have been sabotaged because he did not give the dogs tramadol, a synthetic opioid. Dallas suggested jealous competitors or someone connected to an Iditarod Trail Committee board angry about his opposition to a rule change might have done it.
Or, he said, animal rights activists like PETA might be trying smear the Iditarod by taking down its brightest star. The latter suggestion is nebulous. Until Dallas’s team was found doped this year, the race had never publicly reported a doping case.
There was no legitimate reason for anyone to believe that if dogs were doped, the doping would be detected and if detected publicly reported.
Crowder said she has no idea of whether Dallas doped dogs. He was pretty much a nonpresence at the Willow kennel run by Salyer, she said.
“I saw Dallas maybe three times,” Crowder said. “He actually hires people. He doesn’t train any dogs himself.”
When controversy swirled in the wake of the doping revelation, Dallas announced he was withdrawing from the 2018 Iditarod in protest. The race did not punish him for the doping this year. It said it couldn’t prove the dogs were intentionally doped, and then proposed to change the doping rule to reflect a strict liability standard, meaning any musher caught with doped dogs going forward would be considered guilty unless he or she could show how the dogs might have gotten the drugs elsewhere.
Crowder said Dallas’s Iditarod withdrawal appeared disingenuous. He was already planning to run the Finnmarkslopet in Norway, she said. Both races take place in March. A racer cannot run both. The Finnmarkslopet attracts about twice as many entrants as the Iditarod.
Crowder helped train the potential Finnmarkslopet team, “and they’re good,” she said.
“He didn’t want to run the Iditarod,” Crowder added. Dallas had known about his Iditarod doping problem since shortly after the March finish of the race. He was informed of the positive test for tramadol promptly after a Oregon lab discovered the drug.
Both the Iditarod and Dallas kept the information secret for more than six months. Dallas said he was led to believe that since the Iditarod couldn’t prove he doped the dogs, the case would be allowed to fade away.
Once it went public, he said repeatedly that he didn’t know what tramadol was before eventually admitting it had once been prescribed for his Golden Harness-winning lead dog Guinness.
“I know he knows what tramadol is,” Crowder said. “Dallas lies a lot.”
The doping case rocked Seavey world at the end of October, but Crowder said it had nothing to do with her decision to quit the Seavey kennel and report it to authorities. She said she just couldn’t stomach the way dogs were treated at the kennel, especially puppies.
It was clear, she said, nobody wanted to go to the trouble and expense of seeking veterinary care for sick puppies.
She called the kennel a “puppy mill.”
When Crowder called her former boss, Lucky Cat Dog Farm owner Becky Barkman and asked for advice on what to do, “my boss was like come home,” Crowder said.
The 70-year-old Barkman, in an interview, said Crowder was clearly a little naive as to big-time kennels and didn’t really understand how things work in Alaska. The Iditarod is a highly competitive sporting event. It takes the best sled dogs in the world to win the race, and they aren’t acquired by accident.
Some mushers spend a great deal of money buying dogs. Others grow them.
How it works
Runyan, the former Iditarod and Quest champ and once a regular Iditarod race commentator – in his book writes with blunt honesty about the steps necessary to win.
Chapter 2 is titled simply “Realities.” In it, Runyan writes that “a good racing dog has a career lifetime of about five years, if he or she is lucky and avoids injury.
“In the early ’80s, I figured the competitive teams were raising at 50 pups a year….That means in five years that a competitive kennel would put 250 pups on the ground. Out of that, one could probably expect to get 25 really championship caliber dogs and hope that none of them got hurt bad enough to put them on the sidelines.”
Mushers, veterinarians and others familiar with the race contend that this sort of dog farming later declined as selective breeding became better, but there are indications that the practice has resumed as the Iditarod has become faster and faster in recent years.
The MatSu report does not say how many dogs were being kept at the Seavey kennel, but Dallas has regularly referenced 90 to 100. The MatSu report also did not detail the number of puppies. The standard Iditarod team has 16 dogs.
As speeds increase in endurance races, faster athletes are required to compete. There are really only two ways to get them: breed a lot of dogs and carefully select for the best of the best, or dope, or do both.
Behind the scenes, veterinarians familiar with Iditarod admit they are suspicious of an increase in doping. The problem was serious enough in the 1980s that the race’s then chief veterinarian, the late Del Carter from Eagle River, said he suspected some dog deaths were tied to the improper use of performance enhancing drugs.
Over the course of the 23 years that followed, not a single case of doping was publicly reported, but some former Iditarod board members says there were mushers asked to leave the race after dogs tested positive. The cases were always handled quietly by the board in executive session, they said.
Most people believe drug usage stopped or at least decreased dramatically after testing was implemented, but it might simply have gone underground. With no out-of-competition testing of Iditarod dogs, it would be easy to gain an advantage by using PEDs in pre-race training, doping experts say.
Iditarod is now considering experimenting with a test that could use the hair of dogs to detect testosterone and steroid use during training. Both drugs help to build lean muscle mass, a distinct advantage for an Iditarod dog.
Veterinarians and mushers all agree most mushers don’t dope their dogs. There is a simple reason for that. Most of the people who enter the Iditarod aren’t in the race to win. They do it for the experience of making it across one of North America’s last great wilderness areas on a dog sled.
In any given year, there are only 10 or 15 teams thinking they have a shot at victory. Within this highly competitive group, however, it is not unreasonable that someone might decide to resort to PEDs to gain an edge.
Some might even be able to rationalize doping as a good alternative to dog farming. The potential puppy-mill accusation, Runyan wrote, “is a serious question to resolve for some people. If you are the type of person where questions like this don’t bother you, skip the next couple of pages and get back to the meat of the book. More power to you, your path is clear and unencumbered.
“Now, for the rest of the readers, the real answer to the question ‘Are you running a puppy mill?” is essentially ‘yes.’ Let’s face it, you made the decision to raise 70 pups and pick out the 15 or 20 best ones. That means there are 50 pups left to sell, give away or put down. You can’t keep the average dogs because it will ruin your focus on developing a championship team and besides that, unless you are independently wealthy, you cannot afford it.
“My viewpoint is to just get realistic and be a good farmer. Most of the pups will have such good breeding behind them that they will sell themselves. The ones that are just not performers are going to have to be eliminated.”
Runyan’s book was written shortly after the Iditarod emerged from a pitched battle with the Humane Society of the United States – an anti-hunting, anti-trapping, anti-fishing animal rights group. A HSUS attack in the 1990s led to a number of sponsors abandoning the multi-million-dollar race.
Iditarod responded by finding new sponsors connected to hunting, fishing, ranching and other businesses generally less concerned dogs might need to be farmed to create a winning team.
Since then race sponsorships have crept back more toward businesses that might worry about their public image if Iditarod dogs were to be treated as merely working animals. PETA claimed a $250,000 cut in the Iditarod purse this year was due to declining sponsorship revenue after it hyped five dog deaths in the 2017 Iditarod.
Many in mushing circles today admire Runyan for being candid, but they question whether the race can survive if mushers are revealed to again be in the “dog farming” business.
The Iditarod is now marketed as an almost cuddly affair. Dallas, in defending himself against doping charges, demanded Iditarod conduct a thorough investigation into the possibility of sabotage because “we all have our best friends on the trail with us.”
To hear Crowder tell it, however, it might be more accurate to say Dallas is on the trail with his best performing acquaintances. There are other mushers on the trail with their “best friends,” plenty of them in fact. But these are generally back-of-the-pack mushers who sometimes take house pets on the trail.
There are few house pets in the teams at the front of the Iditarod, and those teams are competing in an almost wholly different event. At the front are highly trained canine athletes carefully selected for one reason: performance.
“To me,” Runyan wrote, “what is the difference, raise 70 pups a year for three years and develop a championship team, or waste 25 years raising 10 pups a year? Some mushers like to raise a few pups and then pay the money for top performers. But, really, what is the difference. Somewhere, sometime, somebody had to raise some numbers of pups to get the quality animals.