FAIRBANKS – I apparently did a bad thing on Friday. I went by the office of someone involved in a news story to ask questions face to face, something journalists used to do all of the time.
But in the computer age where so much communication is done by email, text or phone some people now seem to think this a serious no-no – a matter, in fact, worthy of a call to the police.
The individual in question was Nina Hansen, the head veterinarian for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which just hung musher Hugh Neff out to dry. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Police Department called after I talked to her to accuse me of either harassing Hansen or making her uncomfortable.
Officer Krynn Finstad couldn’t seem to make up her mind which it was, but she very forcefully informed me that I hadn’t gone through “proper channels.” In order to talk to Hansen on campus, she said, a journalist must get clearance from Quest officials in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
So much for the attempts at transparency by Alaska sled-dog sports.
Finstad never could explain what authority the Quest had over anything that happens on the UAF campus, and she seemed to get a little irritated when asked if this meant a journalist had to get permission from NASA to talk to university professors with contracts related to work with that agency.
“Here’s the deal,” she said. “You’ve been informed of the proper way to of asking questions.
“It’s my job to protect the safety of people on the university…she felt uncomfortable…(but) no one calls me because they just feel uncomfortable.”
Then again, maybe they do.
Hansen was clearly uncomfortable about being asked questions about Neff, the two-time Quest champion last week suspended from that race for two years in a move unprecedented in Alaska sled-dog racing history. The 1,000-mile-race – Alaska’s second-tier long-distance sled dog race – runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks and in alternative years for Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
I’m sorry Hansen felt uncomfortable. I’m equally sorry Neff got suspended.
The reason for Neff’s suspension, according to the Quest, is that Boppy, a dog in Neff’s team, died during this year’s race. The suspension is a serious blow to the business wich supports the 50-year-old Neff and his new wife, Olivia Shank Neff. That business is racing sled dogs and promoting sled dog racing, which is going to be hard to make work when you’re labeled a sled-dog-murdering dog driver.
I feel sorry for both the Neffs. I feel especially sorry for 5-year-old Boppy. And I feel sorry for all responsible mushers caught up in the chaos that has surrounded the Iditarod and the Quest in the past year.
Neff also claims to be the victim of a “personal vendetta” intended to “destroy people’s careers and lifestyles.”
I’m sorry, more than anything, that so many questions surround these cases, and that the people running the races really don’t want to answer most of the questions.
Neff was quick to point out in a YouTube video that the Boppy, “a special boy to us,” was not the first Quest or Iditarod dog to die. Neither was Boppy’s death unique. He died of aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia – which is causing by coughing up or vomiting fluid and then inhaling it – is, sadly, an all too common cause of death in sled-dog races in Alaska.
Katherine Keith from Kotzebue had a dog die from aspiration pneumonia in the Iditarod this year. She has not been penalized in any way, at least not as of yet. The Iditarod has not revealed the final results of the necropsy on that dog.
But Keith had a dog die of aspiration pneumonia in the 2017 race, too, and she was not penalized or suspended then so there’s no reason to believe anything will happen now.
A 2008 study of Iditarod dog deaths from 1996 to 2006 found aspiration pneumonia one of the more common causes of death for the 27 dogs that died in that time period. No one was suspended or otherwise penalized for those death.
The Iditarod, it should be noted here, is being unfairly singled out in this story because it keeps good records and is more studied than the Quest. The Iditarod is to be commended for this. The race can be criticized for the shallowness of its reporting on dog deaths, but it has maintained a solid database on deaths and battled tirelessly to reduce them.
Keith’s dog was the only one to die this year. The race was run without a single dog death in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. In 2015, two dogs died – both in the team of four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks.
The causes of death for those two dogs were never determined, and the oddity of two deaths in one team in one race never was explained. But Mackey was not penalized or suspended.
The Quest has had fewer dog deaths than the Iditarod over the years – an average of a death about every other year – but the Quest is a much smaller race run at a slower pace because checkpoints are far apart. Field size alone, however, could account for the difference in deaths given that Iditarod is about three times the size of the Quest.
Only once in the history of the two races combined has another musher been penalized for a dog death. That happened in 1996 after the Iditarod enacted a rule saying that if a dog died a musher would automatically be disqualified. That same year the team of five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson, a man noted for his dog care, ended up stumbling into open water on the Yentna River.
There the dogs tangled and as Swenson was trying to get them untangled and out of the water, one of the dogs drowned. With Swenson, who ran 35 Iditarods without a dog death, booted after a death in a freak accident, the Iditarod decided to rewrite the rule stipulating mandatory withdrawal in the event of a dog death.
Since then, no one has been penalized for a dead dog.
Some are now calling for restatement of the Iditarod’s old dead-dog rule. Veteran musher Rayme Smyth of Big Lake has suggested a no-fault rule that says simply a musher cannot officially finish the race unless all of the musher’s dog – both those in the team at the end and those dropped along the 1,000 mile trail on the way to Nome – are alive.
Meanwhile, the Quest’s decision to sanction Neff for a dog death is precedent setting whether the Quest understands that or not.
The Quest has tied its action to the one death. The Quest said Neff was suspended solely because the dog that died was physically in worse shape than other dogs that have died in Alaska long-distance races.
It had whip worms; it had moderate intestinal inflammation, which is somewhat normal in dogs halfway through an ultramarathon; it had skeletal muscle decay and muscle wasting; and it had “severe weight loss,” according to the what the Quest publicly claimed to be a “Final Necropsy Report.”
Only the so-called “final necropsy” report wasn’t a necropsy report at all. It was a summary of a necropsy report. The Quest hasn’t made available the necropsy or the toxicology report on Neff’s dog. The Quest has, however, said there was no “doping positive” involved.
Former Quest champion John Schandelmeier, who revealed in comments posted at craigmedred.news that he had seen the actually necropsy, says “there were prohibited drugs in the system also, though not in ‘a significant quantity.'”
Everyone learned earlier this year from the doping case involving four-time Iditarod champ Seavey that there is doping and then there is doping. Dog races have no black-and-white standards for what concentrations of drugs are allowed in dogs. There are floating standards, and what constitutes a positive drug test is what race officials decide is a positive drug test.
Schandelmeier, who knows a lot about sled dogs, concluded that “the whip worm was not an infestation, and had no real bearing on the dogs’ condition.” I’m inclined to give considerable weight to Schandelmeier’s conclusions, given his considerable experience.
In the interview that made Hansen uncomfortable, she said almost nothing. She refused to talk about the condition of other dogs in Neff’s team, saying that such information is covered by “client-patient privilege.” She said she could lose her license if she said anything.
(Note to Alaska sled-dog races: If mushers aren’t already signing release forms allowing vets to talk about the dogs in their teams, they should be. Transparency here would benefit everyone.)
Hansen did confirm that two of Neff’s dog were dropped at the “hospitality stop” of Clinton Creek, where Boppy died, and that those dogs were alive when hauled into Dawson on a sled behind a snowmachine. She would not say what the condition of those dogs in Dawson or what their condition when the race released them to Neff.
The Quest has not said why Neff was not disqualified for dropping dogs at a hospitality stop. It has been revealed there were at least two satellite phone conversations between Neff and Quest race marshal Doug Harris. Harris did not return messages left on his voice recorder.
Without more information, there is no way of knowing what transpired in those conversations. For all outside observers know, Harris could have told Neff it would be fine to drop dogs at Clinton Creek, planning to use those dropped dogs to later disqualify the musher if he didn’t drop out of the race at Dawson.
How Neff’s team looked upon arrival in Dawson also isn’t known, and Hansen wouldn’t say. The Quest reportedly forbid photographers from taking pictures of the team arriving in Dawson. That could have been because the dogs looked terrible, and the Quest didn’t want bad press. It also could have been because the dogs looked great, and the Quest was, as Neff claims, plotting against him and didn’t want to provide evidence to show that the rest of the team was healthy and ready to keep going along the trail.
Asked very specifically about all of this in an email to the UAF-Police-Department-approved, designated Quest spokeswoman, the response was the Hansen treatment: no response.
Neff’s response to almost the same questions sent the Quest has been the same: no response.
It is known Boppy was in the Clinton Creek cabin of “Sandra and Earl” when he died. It is not known if there was veterinary help available or how the dog was being treated, if at all. Hansen has said the dog should not have been allowed to leave the Eagle checkpoint.
In her uncomfortable interview, she reaffirmed an earlier statement that she wasn’t in Eagle when that happened, but that she would still take responsibility for the decision. Deciding what dog is and what dog isn’t too skinny to leave a checkpoint is a very iffy proposition.
Modern-day sled dog are lean like world-class marathon runners. To many observers, most of the dogs look “too skinny” from the start. What is skinny and what is too skinny is a difficult judgment call even in a physical examination.
A highly knowledgeable dog person on the Iditarod Trail with Keith this year said “I saw (her) dog hours before it died in Koyuk. It looked awful and emaciated. No way it could have gotten in that bad of condition in one day.”
Obviously, however, Iditarod veterinarians didn’t think that when they allowed Keith to leave Shaktooklik for the difficult crossing of the Norton Bay ice to Koyuk, even though a significant number of veterinarians these days think way too many Iditarod dogs now arrive at the Bering Sea coast “too skinny.”
“Too skinny,” on the other hand, is an awfully easy call to make after a necropsy, and an awfully difficult call for a vet to make against a veteran musher in the middle of a big race. All of which poses obvious questions:
How many other dead dogs were “too skinny,” and was this suspension really about one dog, or is it more about the man nicknamed “Huge Mess.”
Neff “was the Iditarod rookie of the year in 2004,” Shannon Proudfoot wrote for Sports Net Magazine in 2012, “but he’s since acquired the nickname ‘Huge Mess’ because of his tendency to fly through the early stages of a race and then flame out. Neff is a flamboyant personality with a keen sense of self-branding—he roared out of the 2012 Quest start chute brandishing an Alaska flag and wearing the red-and-white stovepipe hat of Dr. Seuss’s cat, his lead dogs in matching jackets.
“‘I have a big advantage compared to most of the other mushers because I’m crazy,’ he says with practised nonchalance.”
Neff might claim to be crazy, but he’s not. He’s calculating. He’s made a living racing dogs and touring the country to speak to schools and various organizations about his adventures as an Alaska musher.
Last year at about this time he brought his “Tails of the Gypsy Musher” show to New Hampshire to lecture on the “mushing culture” for a fundraiser at the Onset VFW Post.
By the middle of May, he was at the AKC Museum of the Dog in St. Louis, which on its event paged welcomed “Hugh Neff, from Laughing Eyes Kennels of Tok, Alaska. ‘Tails From The Trail: Yukon Quest, Iditarod, and Beyond’ Lecture and film with Q&A with Hugh Neff, 2012 & 2016 Yukon Quest Champion AND he will be accompanied by Sled Dogs: George and Amigo.'”
In 2016 he was in the Chicago-area stomping grounds of his youth where WGN-9 Morning News described him as “the most travelled dog musher in the world.…Just this past February ‘The Gypsy Musher’ as he is called, won his second thousand mile quest with his dog George Costanza leading the pack.
“‘George is a pretty amazing dog,’ Hugh said. ‘He was my leader when I won four years ago and my leader when I won this year too.’
“Now in his off-season George and Hugh travel the world promoting passion: Passion for life, passion for health, passion for exploring.”
Neff is by all accounts a first-rate story-teller, but he’s had some problems as a dog driver. It borders on the unbelievable that the Quest could decide to overlook them in the wake of the latest Neff disaster and instead make a decision based on a lone dog death.
A quick rundown:
- In the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Neff pushed a team until it quit on Golovin Bay in a blizzard. Neff and the dogs spent 10 hours exposed in the wind and cold out on the ice, and he later accused the Iditarod of basically wanting him dead by not acting to rescue them sooner. Veteran musher and Iditarod commentator Sebastian Schnuelle shot back with a post that accused Neff of racing irresponsibly by keeping the pedal to the metal. “It was Hugh’s own personal choice to not rest at any of the available places,” Schnuelle wrote. “He knew he was down to 8 dogs. To rest 1.30 hrs in Elim is a risky move in the best of conditions with a large team. It gets even riskier with a small team. It is outright foolish to do with a small team in bad weather.”
- In 2011, Neff charged into a Quest storm and ran into trouble, only that time a dog died. Leading the race as it approached Fairbanks, Neff tried several times to get his dog team up and over Eagle Summit. Lead dog Geronimo ended up dead of aspiration asphyxiation, meaning he vomited up so much stomach fluid he choked to death on it.
- In 2009, Neff was caught cheating in the Quest. He took to a plowed road to avoid what was described as a twisty, bumpy trail through the woods on the way to Eagle. Race marshal Doug Grilliot was irate, saying Neff cheated to gain an advantage. There was considerable debate about what the punishment should be, the Yukon News reported, but eventually it was decided to assess Neff a two-hour penalty.
- In 2001, Neff was disqualified from the Quest after vets concluded his team was not fit to continue. Such actions in Alaska races are rare.
Neff ran his first Quest in 2000. He has suffered two dog deaths in the 18 years since. Swenson ran almost exactly twice as many Iditarods with but one dog death. Other top mushers have had dogs die, but few can match the rate of death of Neff.
But he is not the worst. Keith has had two dogs die over the course of only five Iditarods. And four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks had three dogs die in Iditarod in 14 races. They are, however, anomalies.
The vast majority of mushers run the race without a fatality. Some mushers manage to run the race for decades without a dog death, and almost no one on the racing scene in the past decade has a reputation to match that of Neff for going out fast only to fade and struggle.
The debate in mushing circles now is whether the penalty fit the crime. Hansen and bunch of other Quest officials clearly don’t want to talk about that.