Alaska musher Katherine Keith, the spouse of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion John Baker of Kotzebue, now says a video of a crippled dog dragging itself around with its forelegs in the couple’s kennel is fake news.
The dog named Birch was injured, Keith said in a Facebook post today, but has since fully recovered. The dog features in a video produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) blowing up in social media.
Keith blames a dog handler known to her as Sam Krause for both the injury to Birch and the secretly recorded video of the poor animal. Krause, if that is his true name, is one of several handlers and at least one dog musher to question dog treatment at the Baker kennel.
Krause could not be reached for comment, but a sworn affidavit from him and a statement was provided by PETA. But first Keith’s verbatim version of what happened to the dog when it was four-months old:
“Sam Krause (if that’s his name) – an ‘undercover’ PETA operator – neglected to properly shut the pen door. Birch then squeezed out and became stuck. Any kennel owner knows that when one dog is hurt they all bark loudly. Sam didn’t pay attention and Birch was left there for hours.
“When I came back from work Sam told me what happened, and I wasn’t sure Birch would make it through the night. We live in Kotzebue where there is no veterinary care. I have to take care of all their needs. This was beyond what anyone could do. Birch made it through the night and then became stronger everyday. Sam kept wanting to know what our intentions were and I could only answer that she’s going to get stronger. All we could do is work to retrain her muscles. Indeed she did (get stronger).
“It took a lot of work and time. Birch had problems using the bathroom but (sic) needed to stay inside. This meant frequent mopping. She needed regular massage and Advil to get control of her hind quarters again. I was NOT going to lose another dog.
“The internet photo was taken days after her injury. I would let her outside on occasion to let her cool off and use the bathroom. She needed to be house trained.
“Slowly we increased her rehabilitation efforts through walks and eventually running. It is about five months after her injury and Birch is fully recuperated. I expect she will do great during fall training but if not she will make a dog owner very happy one day.
“Maybe this was the wrong approach or maybe I should have acted differently. Regardless she is better.”
The other version
The story told by the handler-known-as Krause is in a sworn affidavit supplied to the Kotzebue Police Department, according to a PETA spokesman, who released a copy but blacked out the author’s name.
“On November 17, I found Birch trapped underneath the bottom of a door to a pen where she was kept,” the author writes. “Birch’s head and torso were outside of the pen, while her hips and hind legs were still inside it. I immediately opened the door and saw that Birch was unable to use her hind legs.”
What follows is largely a day-by-day progress report on Birch’s condition, the lack of anything being done to treat the dog, and the handler’s effort to get the dog to Anchorage to be treated by a veterinarian. It covers a period of about three weeks after Birch’s injury.
On Nov. 18, the handler found Birch chained out. “She exited the shelter with her front legs straightened, dragging her hind legs behind her,” the affidavit says. “Her tail appeared to be coated with feces. She collapsed to her chest and dragged her torso and hind legs on the ice behind her….When I filled a water bowl for her, I saw that she immediately drank from it almost continuously for approximately two minutes. She then dragged herself into the shelter.”
The next day, the dog was no better. “Keith told me that on Nov. 18, she stopped giving Birch carprofen; Keith told me that she had not provided Birch with any other medication,” the affidavit says.
“On Nov. 22, Keith told me that she was ‘not going to do anything other than just watch [Birch], see how she does.’ I asked Keith if we could bring Birch to a veterinarian. Keith replied, ‘Yeah. I don’t know what they would do though’…(and) ‘anytime we … send a dog out, it’s a minimum of a thousand bucks.'”
“On Nov. 28,” the affidavit says, “Baker told me that Birch ‘needs to be put out of her misery.’… Later that day, I saw that Birch remained chained in a similar condition, hobbling next to the sea.”
“On December 5, I told Keith that I was interested in taking Birch to a veterinarian to have her injury and condition diagnosed and that I would like to provide Birch with rehabilitation,” the affidavit said. “Keith was visibly upset by this request and rejected my offer. When I last saw Birch, on December 7, she continued to hobble. On January 1,
2019, I texted Keith to ask how Birch was doing. Keith did not respond.”
The handler left Kotzebue on Dec. 7. The day before he left, the affidavit says, “Baker introduced me to his sister, who he told me runs Northern Air Cargo….I used this service to fly a dog Keith and Baker gave me from Kotzebue to Anchorage for just $53.07.”
PETA in a statement provided with the affidavit accused Keith of lying about some of the details of what happened to Birch and chastised her for the claim she gave the dog “‘Advil’ (ibuprofen). Ibuprofen is extremely harmful and dangerous for dogs.”
Veterinarians warn ibuprofen has “a narrow margin of safety in dogs, and acute toxicosis is common.” But a peer-reviewed study in Veterinary Medicine suggested it could be used safely in very, very small doses for very short periods of time in an emergency.
Krause is not the first handler to criticize the Baker kennel publicly, and others have done so privately. Keith in another Facebook post today charged that her family is being victimized by anti-Iditarod activists.
“Two men within a year of themselves felt it appropriate to come stay in our kennel, share meals with us, talk to our daughters, and share in the intimate details of daily kennel life,” she writes. “They lied, stole, committed fraud, and completely ripped away any fabric of trust I had left. Rick Townsend still sends harassing emails and text messages. Last year he launched a campaign to again smear dirt at John. Sam Krause pretended to be John’s friend at the end of Iditarod. These men use(d) the ‘handler’ experience as an invite to simply terrorize us or to advance their personal agendas.”
Townsend said the harassment claim is untrue. The former Minnesota resident today said his only agenda in reporting Baker to authorities in 2018 was a desire to protect Baker’s dogs. Townsend went to work for Baker in 2017 after seeing a Craigslist advertisement in Minnesota. The state is the old home of Keith and former Baker handler and Iditarod veteran Tollef Monson.
Monson has also complained about Baker’s dog care, but never publicly. He last year refused to talk in detail about his experiences at the kennel, but confessed he was angry enough about what happened that he no longer talks to Baker, once a friend.
Monson said Baker has “anger management issues” and suggested, though did not specifically say, that dogs sometimes took a beating because of that.
In the video of Birch secretly recorded by Krause, Baker says, “for the leaders, if I told them to turn this way, and they didn’t turn, I was heading up there (to the front of the team). And I wasn’t going up there to pet them.
“I was going up there to let them know that, ‘Listen you son of a bitch….If I say turn, you turn.'”
Baker grew up in an Alaska Native community on the edge of the Bering Sea. When he was growing up, it was not unusual for dogs to be treated roughly there or killed if they were not useful, and along a coast where broken sea ice can be encountered, lead dogs following commands could conceivably be the difference between life and death.
Townsend said fellow Minnesotan Keith treated the dogs better than Baker. Townsend described her as “a driven athlete” who sometimes treats “you like you’re stupid or something.” He said his main complaint with Keith was that “she has no issues with (Baker’s) dog abuse.”
“She has her own way of treating the dogs that are not as horrific but still abuse,” he added.
Townsend said he left Kotzebue after Baker shot a dog because it was not performing. His parting came in the days just “before Iditarod (2017) started because I told John I’m telling everyone about his abuse.”
As a result of that, he wrote, he was escorted to the Kotzebue airport at gunpoint and loaded on a plane out of the roadless city. Baker later filed a complaint with Kotzebue police claiming Townsend was a thief.
“He told police I did not have permission to use his credit card and stole the number. This was in March,” Townsend said. “I’d been there since November, and we had the card to use for all we needed, food, supplies, and so on. I signed my own name, as did everyone.”
State court documents show Townsend was charged with theft in Kotzebue in May 2017, two months after leaving the community of 3,300. The documents put the date of the crime at Feb. 28, just before Townsend flew out. A warrant with bail set at $500 was issued for Townsend’s arrest in June of 2017 and appears to still be active, although Townsend says it was quashed.
Townsend contends the charges were a ruse aimed to shut him up, but by the end of 2017, he was starting to talk and by 2018 his story was out. Townsend early that year provided craigmedred.news the names of four people he said could confirm his story: one still in Kotzebue, one in Minnesota and two in Fairbanks.
The woman he named in Kotzebue said she had never seen any abuse at the Baker kennel. The man he named in Minnesota became irate about being asked to recount his experiences and refused to talk.
Only one of two handlers who’d relocated to Fairbanks could be contacted. That one, a young woman then working for another Iditarod musher, said she and her boyfriend had stapled together injured dogs while working in the Baker-Keith kennel, but insisted all of the injuries stemmed from dog fights.
Two other former Baker handlers reached independently, however, said there had been problems at the kennel. Neither wanted to be identified in a news story or go into detail, but one veteran handler said things were so bad she quickly made up a story about needing to leave Kotzebue to attend a friend’s family event. She flew out, she said, and never went back.
“What pisses me off is everyone knows I’m telling the truth,” Townsend said when told of the difficulty in confirming his story last year. “They tell me in messenger. They contacted me. But nobody will say a damn thing.”
He later sent some computer screengrabs to back up that statement. A couple were from veteran Iditarod mushers who said they knew there was a problem, but they contained no firsthand information. There were, however, two posts from Monson hinting at the problems he only alluded to in an interview.
The first is below.
There was also a screen grab of Townsend’s last exchange with Scott Engebretson, the handler who returned to his old home in Minnesota. Townsend asked Engebretson to call Alaska reporter Casey Grove and tell him what had happened in Kotzebue.
Given the involvement of PETA – an activist animal rights group – in the latest criticism of Baker along with three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling, many Iditarod fans are convinced this story has to be a setup, and even those less than fully convinced of that idea are wary.
As Thom Swann, a well-respected dog driver from Fairbanks points out, “the most pristine kennel in the world could easily be depicted as ugly as those in PETA’s video and it wouldn’t take very long for someone to do so. So could the most pristine animal rescue shelter, or ANY environment in which animals are kept.
“There is absolutely no doubt that some sled dog kennels, including some operated by ‘big name’ mushers, have serious issues relating to their dog-care practices,” he said.
But everyone worries about PETA plants or even disgruntled handlers trying to smear someone’s reputation. Most handlers are abysmally paid and over-worked. They hang on because they love to run dog teams, which are costly to support unless one has a dog-food sponsor, or they are obsessed with the dream of running the Iditarod.
Handlers are often able to put up with a lot if they think that Iditarod dream is in sight as reflected in another Monson post of which Townsend grabbed a screenshot. Monson in that post described Baker’s temper as “out of control” and identified yet another handler, now back in Europe, who had witnessed Baker abusing dogs.
He also asked about a Minnesota musher and Iditarod veteran who’d once sold dogs to Baker.
The musher was Jamie Nelson, a highly respected dog trainer who four times ran the Iditarod. She runs the Mushing Boot Camp in Togo.
Nelson bred, raised and helped train the dogs with which Baker won the Iditarod in 2011 in the then-record time of 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes.
Reached by phone today, she said she has not had any direct contact with Baker since 2008, and “I don’t particularly want to be” in contact. She confessed she and Baker had a falling out over the way he treats dogs, and that she and Monson had tried to get other mushers to do something about it.
“No one wanted to listen to us,” she said.
The Iditarod until 2017 studiously avoided taking any role in the non-racing care of sled dogs. In December of that year, however, it announced it was developing the “framework for a ‘Best Care’ kennel management program.”
Baker’s brother, Andy, was at the time the president of the Iditarod Trail Committee, the organization that runs the Iditarod, and Townsend’s accusations were on the verge of going public. When that finally happened, John dropped out of the 2018 Iditarod. Katherine ran the race and suffered another dog death, the second in two years in her team.
A Best Care Program never materialized, but Iditarod in 2018 required that all mushers entering this year’s “review and certify” that their kennel or the kennel housing their dogs met the standards set by Mush with PRIDE, an organization set up to develop standards for sled-dog care.
Mush With PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog’s Environment) dates back to the 1990s when the Iditarod was under fire from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a less-radical version of PETA. The latter wants to ban trapping, hunting, fishing, meat-eating, fish-eating, drug-testing, rat killing, and more.
PETA is so extreme that the immediate kneejerk reaction to anything it touches in Alaska is negative. In the echo chamber of the Iditarod faithful, the mere fact PETA is involved in the video of the Baker and Seavey kennels, and the claims as to what Krause witnessed there, renders it all untrue.
But even if it were all true, it wouldn’t matter. Dogs are considered livestock in most of Alaska. Iditarod sets no standards for off-season care. And PRIDE has no ability to enforce anything.
PRIDE has guidelines and a voluntary kennel inspection program it hopes will be “applicable to kennels anywhere in the world, or will serve as a model for other certification programs, according to the PRIDE website.
“The PRIDE Board firmly believes that if we mushers conduct ourselves responsibly then we will be less likely to suffer from unknowing governmental regulation. We hope that this program is a demonstration of the fact that we can responsibly take care of our own.”
That’s a mission impossible to carry out without staff, and PRIDE has none. There is no one to investigate the situation in Kotzebue unless local police decide to make a case of it. Baker and Keith could be the victims of a massive setup, or poor Birch could be the victim of a PETA plant trying to frame the mushers.
The other complaints could come from handlers who just don’t like the well-known Baker-Keith duo for whatever reasons, or they could be true or half-true or partially true.
Thus the story ends where it began with everyone free to believe what they want to believe.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the requirement for the relationship between entrants in the 2019 Iditarod and Mush with Pride.