WASILLA – Publicly vilified Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Hugh Neff said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with craigmedred.news that he doesn’t know what more he could have done to save the dog that died in this year’s race.
And a veterinarian who has known the 50-year-old musher almost since Neff’s arrival in Alaska is questioning the Quest’s report on the cause of the dog’s death and the way in which the results of a necropsy were used to paint a picture of Neff as a dog killer.
In a move unprecedented in Alaska sled-dog racing, Neff was in late April suspended for two years from the 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. At the time, the Quest issued a press release suggesting it was taking the action because Neff continued along the trail from the Eagle, Alaska, checkpoint to Dawson Creek, Yukon Territory, with a dog in his team unfit to travel.
The dog – Boppy – died in a cabin at Clinton Creek, an old mining community about 50 miles from Dawson, as Neff and others tried to save his life. Over breakfast Wednesday in Sarah Palin’s hometown along the George Parks Highway, Neff recounted how he called the Quest to report Boppy was in serious trouble and ask for help, but none was forthcoming.
Clinton Creek is about two hours from Dawson by snowmachine. Neff said Boppy was in “Sandra and Earl’s” warm cabin there for somewhere between five and eight hours while he and others tried to figure out how to save the dog, Neff said.
Boppy’s problems began, Neff said, with signs of a seizure, but the dog seemed to get better and looked for a time like he might recover.
“He was wagging his tail,” Neff said, emotion in his voice and a tear forming in the corner of his eye. But then Boppy coughed up some stomach contents, and after that the dog’s condition went quickly downhill.
Neff said Quest Chief Veterinarian Nina Hansen later told him that was when she believes Boppy inhaled gastric fluids that quickly infected his lungs and caused his death by aspiration pneumonia, a sadly too common cause of death in long-distance sled dog races.
A veterinarian at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Hansen has largely refused to talk publicly about what exactly she believes happened. After this reporter showed up at her office, identified himself and asked a few questions to which she provided non-answers, she called the University of Alaska Fairbanks Police Department to report, according to the department’s log, that she was “being stalked by a blogger.”
A UAF police officer later called and said Hansen could not be interviewed on the UAF campus unless approval was first received from the Yukon Quest. University officials have not commented on when they decided to allow organizations outside the university to dictate what is and isn’t allowed on university campuses in the 49th state.
Law and Order
Questions were posed to Hansen after the Quest issued a press release that read a little like the plot line for an episode in the old and immensely popular TV series “Law and Order.”
The document ruled the dog’s death the cause of “aspiration pneumonia,” but went on to suggest that the ailment was due to Neff allowing a seriously unhealthy dog to run in his team during the Quest.
If the incident had actually been a Law and Order episode, Neff would have been the man accused of negligent homicide for neglecting the health of a child later killed by a common medical ailment.
Of such an accusation, veterinarian Eric Jayne thinks Neff not guilty.
“I don’t know why they’re picking on him,” Jayne said after reviewing the necropsy report on Boppy provided Neff.
“What confused me,” he added, was the cursory examination of Boppy’s brain given that Neff told race officials the dogs problems began with a seizure.
“I’ve read a lot of necropsy reports,” Jayne said in a Wednesday telephone interview from Arkansas. “There are a few details that didn’t make sense to me.
“A normal post-mortem would look in the brain. If a dog is having a seizure, it can aspirate.”
Jayne, who once provided veterinary care to pets in Eagle, is suspicious Boppy’s death might be linked to a “clostridium perfringens type A alpha toxin,” a product produced by the clostridium bacteria.
“Here is an example,” he messaged. “The last two years after the Yukon Quest went through the town of Eagle, dogs developed diarrhea. Last year, one dog died. Both years many dogs have had chronic diarrhea and seizures.
“I have last year’s lab results on that diarrhea as well as a sample from this year that’s going to the lab later today. The samples last year as usual were clostridium perfringens type A alpha toxin.”
“A 2-year-old female Pomeranian dog was found dead in a pool of bloody feces the morning after it had been at a dog show. The previous day the dog was bright, alert, responsive, eating, and drinking. It had been fed a commercial diet. The dog was in good health; it had no history of vomiting or diarrhea. The dog had not been treated recently and was up-to-date on vaccinations. The owners were concerned about the possibility of poisoning so they submitted the body for necropsy to the Animal Health Laboratory in Guelph, Ontario.”
The dead dog was found to have “watery-red intestinal contents” and “marked pulmonary congestion.” The latter is usually associated with aspiration pneumonia.
Jayne suspects Boppy’s death could have been precipitated by a clostridium infection because of events as described by Neff.
Weather conditions as the Quest moved out of Alaska toward the Canadian border this year were nothing short of dangerous. When Neff left the tiny, Yukon River community of Eagle on the morning of Feb. 2, it was 40 degrees below zero. In the river valleys to the south, as the trail wound through the mountains to join the Fortymile River and follow it back to the Yukon, the thermometer would slide toward 50- to 60-degrees below zero.
These are harsh conditions for both humans and animals. The former must pull on bulky layers of clothes to survive. The dogs, too, get jackets but mainly they turn up their internal thermostats to produce more body heat to push back the cold.
Thermoregulation, however, requires a lot of calories, as does trotting along the trail.
Some dogs just simply can’t eat enough to keep up with the metabolic demands. Neff’s short-haired, houndy dogs – pretty much the norm in Alaska long-distance sled dog racing these days – were at a particular disadvantage.
They were on what some have called the “Iditarod diet,” a radical-weight loss plan driven by a program wherein the caloric demands of exercise makes it impossible to eat enough to avoid losing weight.
There is a reason almost all Iditarod dogs wear coats to the finish line in Nome these days, one musher said; the coats are to hide how skinny the dogs are as ever-faster Iditarod races leave them less time for rest, recovery and caloric consumption.
Boppy, an Iditarod veteran, wasn’t being asked to run at Iditarod speed in the Quest, but the cold was making up for that. He was burning a lot of calories to stay warm and as a result losing weight.
On this, both the Quest and Neff agree.
After Boppy’s death, the Quest would decide he was “too skinny” when he left Eagle. If only a vet had offered a serious warning about weight loss at the time, Neff said he would have left Boppy behind. He certainly didn’t want a dog to die, he said.
Taking along a dog the vets thought would die would be just stupid, added his wife, Olivia Shank Neff, the grand-daughter of Leroy Shank, one of the Quest founders. And besides, Olivia added, Hugh wouldn’t risk hurting a family house pet.
“When I met Hugh,” she said, “I told a friend I’d finally found a guy who loves dogs as much as I do.”
On the trail from Eagle to Clinton Creek, there were no signs of trouble, either. With the sled runners dragging like sandpaper on the extremely cold snow, a satellite tracker on Hugh’s sled showed him steadily plodding along at 3 to 6 mph for 100 miles to the cabin at the abandoned mining community.
The dogs were tired when they arrived there, Hugh said, but otherwise looking fine. He got them bedded down and fed them. Everyone ate well. The February sun low to the south was just rising.
Hugh believes the temperature was near 50 degrees below zero, but it might have been colder. Whatever the temp, it was damn cold, and he wasn’t having much fun nor were the dogs. So he called race marshal Doug Harris in Dawson and told him of a plan to take a long, long rest at Clinton and then drop out of the race at halfway at Dawson.
Not long after that, with other mushers leaving the so-called “hospitality stop,” Hugh said, he left the warm cabin to move his team to where another had been parked. Hugh wanted the dogs to be where they could gather what pitiful little warmth was coming from the sun rising on the southern horizon.
After the move, he said, the dogs started nosing around in the straw on which the previous team had been bedded and found some kibble to eat. Hugh took that as a sign they were hungry again, and he went back in the cabin to cook food for the team. It took maybe 20 minutes, he said.
He came out of the cabin, started to feed the dogs, looked to the front of the team and saw “Boppy on his side sort of running in place,” Hugh said.
Immediately recognizing the signs of a seizure, Hugh ran to Boppy, unhooked him from the gangline of the sled, scooped him up and carried him into the warm cabin.
Bad to worse
Inside, Hugh said, others helped him warm Boppy. There was a nurse from Whitehorse there, he said, but no veterinarian. Hugh tried his best to calm Boppy down. The seizures stopped, and Hugh grew hopeful the dog would live.
But then Boppy vomited or coughed up some food, and things started to go downhill from then on. Five to eight hours after bringing Boppy into the cabin, Hugh said, he was dead.
Another call was made to Dawson to report what had happened and to arrange for Canadian rangers to come out on snowmachines to retrieve Boppy’s body. When they showed up, Hugh decided to send two other dogs back with them.
“Those dogs would have made it fine,” he said, “but what’s the point?”
They weren’t incapable. They were simply unenthusiastic. So they got a ride home.
More than 25 hours after arriving in Clinton, Hugh and the rest of the team finally pulled out on the trail to Dawson. Along the way, Hugh said, they met another dog team stalled on the trail and helped that musher get going.
On the better travelled path on the frozen Yukon, the team trotted out the last 50 miles at a slightly better pace than they’d slogged through the first 100 through the mountains to Clinton Creek.
Race officials in Dawson told Hugh when he arrived that a necropsy was already underway. They asked him to sign some papers. Hugh doesn’t remember all what happened.
“I don’t even know what I signed,” he said.
He believes they asked him what he wanted done with Boppy’s body, and he must have decided on cremation because Boppy was cremated.
Hugh’s recollection is noticeably foggy here. He remembered at first thinking Boppy’s body had been flown to Colorado for a final necropsy, but then decided that couldn’t be the case because Boppy was cremated in Whitehorse. It must have been a Colorado veterinarian who did the necropsy there, he said.
On February 9 with the Neffs still in Dawson, the Quest announced a preliminary necropsy had concluded 5-year-old Boppy died from “aspiration…consistent with the clinical history provided by the musher.”
More than two months would pass before the Neffs would hear more from the Quest, and then the race wouldn’t be very forthcoming.
In the interim, the couple left Dawson for their home in the community of Tok along the Alaska Highway sad about Boppy but unaware there was any concern Hugh might have caused the dog’s death, the second unfortunate fatality for him in the Quest.
Back home, he started getting ready for the Iditarod and was in a matter of weeks on the trail. He followed a team of 16 dogs out of Willow on the 1,000-mile run to Nome on March 4. A little more than 10 and a half days later he followed nine of those dogs down Front Street to finish 21st in the race.
It was an uneventful run in an Iditarod that came to focus on a couple of men about a day behind Neff. Seventy-year-old Jim Lanier from Chugiak and his team bogged down in a blizzard on the last leg of the trail along the Bering Sea Coast from White Mountain to the finish in Nome.
Fellow musher Scott Janssen tried to help Lanier only to end up in trouble himself. Suddenly an Iditarod problem focused on one stalled musher became an Iditarod crisis requiring the rescue of two men and 24 dogs.
After Iditarod, the Neffs headed to Northwest Alaska for the Kobuk 440.
“When this (Quest censure) was going on, we were doing the 440 with the same dogs,” Olivia said.
The next thing Hugh remembers is getting back home to Tok to find that someone had called from Whitehorse. He thought it might be old girlfriend Tamra Reynolds with information about the bill for Boppy’s cremation.
It was Quest officials calling to tell him he was being suspended from the 1,000-mile race for two years because of Boppy’s death. There was no hearing, he said; no chance for discussion about what might have happened.
A Quest press release followed not long after mislabeled as “Final Necropsy Report on Boppy.” There was no necropsy report. There was an announcement of the presumed cause of death: “Boppy died of aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomited stomach contents.”
And there was a suggestion of further problems: “Other findings include mild stomach ulcers, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, and severe weight loss and muscle wasting.”
Then came the kicker: “Due to the organization’s commitment to sled dog care during the race, and based on the Code of the Trail and Yukon Quest rules 35, 43 and 44 pertaining to sled dog care, the decision has been made by Yukon Quest International to apply the following censure based on the additional findings.”
The suggestion was clear: Hugh’s poor care led to Boppy’s death.
There were later suggestions made that Hugh hadn’t wormed his dogs. He did, he said; about a week before the race. And former Quest champ John Schandelmeier, no friend of Hugh’s, has said that from his reading of the necropsy – a copy of which he saw – the claim of a whipworm “infestation” is an overstatement.
But then that’s what the three words “mild whipworm infestation” would on their face indicate. The dictionary defines infestation as “the presence of an unusually large number of insects” or other parasites. An animal is either infested or not. There is no mild or extreme infestation.
Hugh has also been criticized for not giving drugs to his dogs designed to stop stomach ulcers, but Boppy is described as having mild stomach ulcers, not severe ones. Exercise‐induced gastritis and gastric ulcers are common in humans, horses and sled dogs. Prophylactic treatment has been recommended to prevent severe ulceration in high-stress racing conditions, but there is room for debate as to whether treatment is good or not in less stressful situations.
As to skeletal muscle necrosis, it is common in all endurance athletes, and so to some extent muscle wasting. All of which leaves the issue of weight. Quest officials said the dog was too skinny. Neff said Boppy normally weighed 42 pounds. He weighed 35 pounds at necropsy.
That’s about a 16 percent loss of body weight, but Hugh said he thought the dog looked OK.
Jayne questions why the veterinarian in Eagle didn’t ask Hugh to pull the dog if it was too skinny. That’s why the veterinarians are on the trail, he said.
“It’s a veterinarian screw up,” he said. “Not a Hugh Neff screw up. A veterinarian made a mistake. The veterinarians are supposed to be there to protect the dogs.”
Jayne and the sled-dog-race vets have a long, interesting and complicated history. Alaska veterinarians once tried to get Jayne’s Alaska veterinary license taken away because he was doing cheap and sometimes free work for villagers. And they really didn’t like him expressing the opinion that the Iditarod annually spreads canine diseases from Willow north to Nome to the detriment of village dogs.
And in one foray out of Alaska, Jayne took a job working for humane organizations in Hawaii – the kind of organizations that often the criticize the Iditarod and Quest.
But Jayne is not opposed to working sled dogs. Just the opposite. He is a musher himself and for years held the concession permit to hauling supplies around Denali National Park and Preserve by dog sled in winter. Not to mention that his son is a veteran of the Iditarod.
On top of that, Jayne’s observation as to a veterinary screw up isn’t out of line with the view expressed by Hansen. She said the vet in Eagle screwed up. Hansen then added that though she wasn’t there; she would take the blame as the person in charge.
She may have taken the blame, but there have been no consequences for her or for the Eagle vet. All of the consequences have fallen on the Neffs, whose small business is tied to running and promoting sled dogs.
“Who was the vet in Eagle anyway?” Olivia asked Wednesday morning.
The question hung in the air.
Hugh broke the silence. He said he’s just trying to avoid the internet, where he’s largely taken a beating, and focus on the bright side.
“I’ve never been closer to my wife,” he said, and he added that he enjoyed the support of her grandfather.
“You know what he said?” Hugh asked: “Welcome to the club. They threw me out too.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified the Hugh Neff girlfriend who called him from Whitehorse.