An informal panel that met for eight hours over the course of two-days in private in Fairbanks has upheld the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race decision banning musher Hugh Neff from next year’s dog race because of a dog death this year.
The names of the three judges are being kept secret, but they are said to have voted unanimously. A veterinarian working for Neff has charged the secrecy is intended to cover up the race’s botched veterinary work.
Neff and his wife, Olivia, believe he has become the sacrificial goat in a Quest effort to demonstrate a crackdown on dog care in the face of ever-increasing pressure from animal right’s groups who want reform in Alaska’s long-distance, sled-dog events.
Hugh said Tuesday that he wants a formal hearing but is unsure of how to obtain one. The Quest put out a press release declaring the informal hearing a “final decision,” and saying “the third-party review board consisted of one musher, one veterinarian, and one community member. The members were decided based on a request from Neff to include mushers and veterinarians. The names of the review board will remain confidential, as per their request.”
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race later issued a press release suggesting Neff avoid entering the state’s premier sled-dog competition next year. The statement noted that a “Qualifying Review Board” checks the credentials of all entrants and “reserves the right to reject any entrant that does not conform with or demonstrate humane animal care practices and does not exemplify the spirit and principles of the Iditarod Trail Committee as set forth in the 2019 rules, policies, bylaws and mission statement. The decision to reject any entrant by the QRB will be final and binding.”
Neff said he is unsure what he will or can do next.
“I just want to be an Alaska dog musher,” he said in a telephone interview. “My wife wants to participate in some events, and we still love participating in the sport, and my wife wants to run some races.”
“(But) you have to make ends meet. I don’t know at the moment how I’m going to do that. I guess we’ll be living on rice and beans. I’m going to have to downsize the kennel.
“We love our dogs. We spend more time with our dogs than anyone. It’s what we live for.”
“Most people in the mushing world can say you’re their friend,” Neff said, “but they don’t have your back.”
Neff said he agreed to have his case reviewed by a panel of five people, not three. Two mushers he asked to sit in – one of them four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion and former Quest victor Lance Mackey – didn’t show. The lone musher on what ended up being a three-person panel turned out to be four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser from Big Lake, Olivia said.
The Neffs invited craigmedred.news to attend the hearing, but the Quest blocked news coverage. The reason for all the secrecy has not been explained.
“Why is it so secretive?” Olivia asked “Why is everything done behind closed doors?
Eric Jayne, the veterinarian working with the Neffs, thinks he has an answer.
“Boppy could have been treated and probably would be alive now,” Jayne emailed. “It’s a veterinary screw up. The tribunal was clearly biased and just done for show.
“…They told (Hugh) he didn’t provide enough evidence to prove he was innocent. That’s the opposite of our justice system.”
Quest chief veterinarian Nina Hansen has refused to talk about the case. After I went to her office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, identified myself as a journalist, asked some questions to which she generally answered no comment, and left, she called the university police department to claim she was being “stalked,” and tried to get officers to throw me off a public campus.
Jayne may actually have hurt the Neffs case in that along with once running sled dog operations in Denali National Park and Preserve he worked for a time in Hawaii for an animal right’s group. The hint of an association with any such organization immediately raises the hackles of Alaska sled-dog racing organizations.
Neff was censured by the Quest amidst accusations his actions contributed to the death of Boppy in a cabin at Clinton Creek, site of an abandoned asbestos mine in the remote Yukon Territory, Canada, about 55 miles north of Dawson City along the 1,000-mile Quest trail from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
The Quest claimed the dog’s death was the result of variety of pre-existing conditions – a “minor whipworm infestation,” inflammatory bowel disease, and low body weight that led to a hypoglycemia-induced seizure, vomiting and eventually aspiration pneumonia from inhaling stomach fluids.
Jayne, an experienced sled dog veterinarian, challenged all of those claims.
“Boppy did not die from these pre-existing conditions,” he wrote in a PowerPoint prepared for the hearing. “Boppy died from 8 hours of intermittent seizures and/or the aspiration/ choking that can occur during a seizure.
“Choking is not aspiration pneumonia.”
To back up his statements, Jayne provided both a “fecal profile” and a “pathologist report” on Boppy from IDEXX Laboratories, a nationally recognized testing authority.
The fecal test found no sign of the Quest-reported whipworm infestation. The pathology report (attached below this story) did find Boppy appeared to be suffering from “mild to moderate inflammatory bowel disease,” that he had lung damage apparently from breathing the smoky air from the forest fires raging around his Tok, Alaska, home last summer, and that he was lean but by no means malnourished as the Quest has suggested.
“The changes in the skeletal muscle are quite mild,” the report says. Dogs that are badly malnourished begin to catabolize muscle for energy.
The Quest, according to checkpoint notes from veterinarians, gave Boopy a “body condition score” of 2.5 of 9 at the Eagle checkpoint before Hugh left for Clinton Creek. The race has no standards that stipulate what BCS requires a dog be dropped in a checkpoint or held back until it puts on weight, though Hansen has since said the dog should have been held at Eagle.
Nestle’ Purina lists a score of 4 or 5 as “ideal weight;” 3 is the first of the three, too-thin categories.
The 1-to-9 scale for BCS scores does not use fractions; they are used in an older 1-to-5 scale. Photos of Boppy’s skinned body show healthy muscle but with almost no external fat. Jayne suggested that is what one would expect to see in a trained athlete.
‘What fat reserves would a human triathelete have?” he asked. “There is no evidence that this caused or contributed to Boppy’s death. A low body condition score does not equal seizures. Hypoglycemia induced seizures occur during an energy demand and sudden blood sugar drop, they do not occur during rest and after a meal.”
Hypoglycemic seizures are themselves rare. The pathology report could find no cause for Boppy’s seizure. A former Neff handler, however, told craigmedred.news that Neff had a line of dogs that were prone to seizures, and that Boppy came out of that line.
Neff could be fairly criticized for breeding – and reportedly sometimes selling to other mushers – such dogs. But it is harder to make the case for his being severely punished if Boppy died of a genetics-linked seizure at Clinton Creek.
One former handler no fan of the Neffs said that if the charge the Quest has leveled against Hugh – that he caused Boppy’s death – has substance, he should have been charged with animal abuse in Canada, where Boppy’s death took place and where animal cruelty laws are less lenient than in Alaska.
Charges could have precipitated a public hearing in a court of law.
A dog’s death
Clinton Creek is what the Quest calls a designated “hospitality stop” for mushers on the long, cold Quest trail. Sandra Vaisvil, an Alaska chiropractor who owns a cabin there and staffs the hospitality checkpoint, sent the Quest a lengthy email detailing what happened on the day of Boppy’s death.
“Once Boppy was discovered to be having trouble,” she wrote, “he was immediately brought into our house, warmed, straw pulled out (of his throat), attended to and even given mouth-to-mouth by Mr. Neff. I have to say that is a dedicated dog musher. It was a very difficult vigil over five to six hours if I recall correctly.”
At the start, she added, Hugh “tried to contact vets in Dawson for several hours…but was unable to get through, and then his attention was taken fully by Boppy’s crisis.”
The review panel was not given Vaisvil’s email or allowed to listen to her testimony, Olivia said. Hugh said he wanted a vet’s advice on how to treat Boppy or better yet for a veterinarian to come out on snowmachine from Dawson to help, but could get no cooperation from race officials.
Aspiration pneumonia is treatable as is choking.
Vaisvil confessed to mixed feelings about Hugh and past concerns about his dog care, but not in this case.
“We have seen Mr. Neff run the Quest for 12 or 13 years,” she wrote, “and initially I did not favor him, having heard that he didn’t take extra care of his dogs. (But) I have not seen any evidence of such in the time we have observed him, albeit earlier from a more biased viewpoint, and in the past few years, just the opposite.”
A former, two-time Quest champion, Hugh has a checkered reputation. He has been a well-known Iditarod rabbit for years, regularly racing to the front of The Last Great Race to attract attention only to have his dogs tire and drop the team farther back in the standings than if he had run a more sensibly paced race.
His low-budget kennel also means corners get cut. Former handlers said the kennel is short on medical supplies (or has none) and lacks for dog booties, so dogs almost always run without them. They also accused Hugh of displaying a certain nonchalance toward canine athletic injuries, as if they didn’t really warrant attention. That is a common attitude among some Alaska mushers.
Almost everyone seems to agree the Neffs do not set the gold-standard for kennel management. Past handlers, of which there are many, complained of a kennel so big Hugh couldn’t remember all the dogs’ names, poorly socialized dogs that sometimes got into fights that led to injuries, marginal medical treatment and more. But those problems aren’t uncommon in other kennels.
The prize lead-dog of Brent Sass, a Quest winner like Neff, was attacked and killed by a poorly socialized team during a stop on a training run, a horrible turn of events Sass later tried to conceal by suggesting the dog had died from genetic problems. An animal abuse complaint was filed against four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey by a handler upset about neglected puppies dying, and Seavey’s wife later admitted to other abuse by handlers of the Seavey dogs.
“Pretty much all mushers have had issues,” Hugh said. “Everyone has had troubles on the trail. It’s not just me. (But) they never were put through the ringer like I was.”
The Cat in the Hat
“Maybe they’re just jealous,” said Iditarod veteran Brian O’Donoghue, the author of an Iditarod book and a professor of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. O’Donoghue admitted to being troubled by how the Neff affair has been handled.
He is someone with knowledge of how hard it can be to get a fair hearing even in a public forum. O’Donoghue led the reporting on the coverage of the Fairbanks Four, a group of young Alaska Native men publicly convicted of a crime they did not commit and sent to prison for almost two decades.
O’Donoghue described the treatment given Hugh in this case as “over-the-top and punitive” in comparison to the way any other mushers have been treated.
“Requiring a two-time champ to run a qualifying race before he can compete again?” O’Dongohue asked. “Why?
“This is taking away a guy’s livelihood. This is taking away a guy’s life.”
O’Donoghue suggested maybe the Quest was overreacting or, yes, “jealous.”
Neff has gained a certain notoriety by donning the attire of Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” for some races and appearances at schools around the nation to talk to kids about the Quest and the Iditarod. He visits 40 to 50 schools per year.
“Kids are my biggest fan base,” he told a Morris Herald-News reporter in Coal City, Ill. in 2014. A story about his visit appeared beneath a photo of Hugh leaving the Quest starting line wearing the Cat-in-the-Hat headgear.
“They call me the ‘Cat in the Hat.’ I carry books in my sled to promote reading and literacy, and I use racing to tell kids about following their dreams,” Hugh said.
Mushers who take their sport seriously don’t cater to Neff’s funning around. There are parallels in his case to “Poodle Man” John Suter from Chugiak, a suburb of Anchorage. Suter was basically run out of the race in the 1990s after he gained too much attention for racing his Fifi dogs.
The poodles pulled Suter onto the Johnny Carson Show, then the dominate force in late-night TV, and boosted him into the pages of Sports Illustrated, where some other mushers would have killed to be.
It all ended when a poodle bedded down on the Bering Sea and some of its hair froze to the ice while a TV crew was filming. Suter pulled the dog free from the ice; it left behind some remnants of hair; and though there was no indication the dog suffered any harm other Iditarod mushers made a stink about how such incidents might damage the race’s image.
As a result, the Iditarod passed a rule limiting the race to “northern breed” dogs with an undercoat of protective fur. After Suter and his non-northern-breed poodles had left the scene, the rule was amended to allow “only dogs suitable for Arctic travel….Suitability will be determined by race officials.”
Many of the dogs running the Iditarod today are in large part Southern Breed dogs, primarily hounds. Many of them are “suitable for Arctic travel” only when outfitted with dog jackets and booties. Since Suter’s departure, there is no record of the race rejecting a dog as not suitable for Arctic travel.
There are, however, many reports of mushers being ordered to put coats on their dogs before crossing the finish line because hounds are naturally lean. And by the end of the average Iditarod or Quest race, some number of them score a 3 or worse on the BCS, and quite of few a 2 or maybe a 2.5 if there was a 2.5.
Boppy’s pathology report:
WYNNE ANIMAL RESCUE SHELTER
1878R HWY 64 SPUR
WYNNE, Arkansas 72396
Account # 90478
Breed: Not Available
Age: Not Available
Requisition #: 82
Accession #: 4601354744
Order recv’d: 6/2/2018
Ordered by: JAYNE
BIOPSY SLIDE CONSULT 8
Seizures for 6+ hours resulting in death during a distance sled dog race.
Sections of brain are examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Sections of stomach are examined. There is a focal ulcer lined with small numbers of degenerate neutrophils and cellular debris. Small aggregates of degenerate neutrophils are located in the deep lamina propria small amounts of mature fibrous connective tissue is identified.
Section of lung is examined. Small amounts of anthracosis is identified surrounding small airways and occasionally within alveoli. Mild to moderate congestion of interstitial capillaries is identified. The larger airways contain small to moderate amounts of eosinophilic globular material and plant material with mixed bacteria consistent with aspiration of gastric contents. There is a small focal area of neutrophilic inflammation within the alveoli admixed with mixed bacteria as well as rare aspirated material.
Sections of small intestine are examined. Expanding the lamina propria are small to moderate aggregates of lymphocytes and plasma cells that mildly elevates the deep crypts. Mild edema and minimal connective tissue is identified.
Section of pancreas is examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Sections of heart are examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Section of lymph node is examined. The medullary sinuses are expanded with increased number of macrophages and plasma cells with occasional small lymphocytes.
Sections of spleen are examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Section of liver is examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Sections of skeletal muscle are examined. Expanding the intermysial space are occasional small multifocal aggregates of macrophages and lymphocytes. There is artifactual separation of myofibers most likely from postmortem change.
Sections of adrenal gland are examined. No histologic lesions are identified.
Sections of kidney are examined. There is diffuse and minimal to mild hypercellularity and increased basement membrane thickening within the glomeruli. Rare aggregates of protein are identified within the distal tubules.
STOMACH: Ulceration, focal, subacute to chronic with mild neutrophilic inflammation
Lung: Anthracosis, mild to moderate, diffuse with aspirated gastric contents and mild neutrophilic inflammation
Small intestine: Enteritis, lymphoplasmacytic, mild to moderate, diffuse, chronic
Lymph node: Medullary histiocytosis and plasmacytosis, mild to moderate
Skeletal muscle: Myositis, lymphohistiocytic, minimal to mild, multifocal, chronic
Adrenal gland: Normal
Kidney: Glomerulopathy, membranoproliferative, minimal to mild, diffuse, chronic with minimal proteinuria
No lesions were identified in the brain sections to explain the clinical seizures identified. There is evidence of anthracosis in the lungs consistent with previous exposure to smoke. The aspirated material within the airways are likely an agonal process.
The chronic infiltrates in the small intestine are suggestive of a mild to moderate inflammatory bowel disease like lesion. The changes in the lymph node are likely a reactive change from increased antigenic stimulation to the lymph node from regional or systemic inflammation. The changes in the skeletal muscle are quite mild with no evidence of myonecrosis. These changes are quite chronic and not considered clinically significant. The glomerular changes in the kidney are also quite mild and likely not associated with significant renal insufficiency.
Steve Rushton, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Pathologists
1-888-433-9987, option 0, x69119
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