Not so Lucky

The small, Wasilla dog allegedly killed by the team of Iditarod musher Jessie Holmes/Facebook


UPDATE: The Wasilla Police Department late Friday issued a short statement affirming that a thorough investigation of the dog attack reported here had been undertaken, and that “citations are expected to be issued.” The full statement is attached at the end of the story. 

The 50th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is barely fading into memory, and the event has a new, public-relations nightmare on its hands.

This one involves a cute, little, dead dog named Lucky and the dog team of Iditarod musher and reality TV star Jessie Holmes, whose dogs are reported to have invaded the home of Lucky’s owners, attacked the 15-pound Havanese tethered there and killed it.

The City of Wasilla is reported to be on the verge of filing animal cruelty charges against Holmes in connection with the attack.

Meanwhile, Lucky’s owner, Liza Tulio McCafferty, turned to Facebook to unburden herself of her emotions in the wake of what happened, and what happens on Facebook rarely remains limited to one post on Facebook.

This one is now widely circulating among the mushing crowd both in Alaska and Outside and is sure to catch the attention of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the latest animal rights organizations to push accusations the Iditarod is inhumane on various fronts.

And in the story told by McCafferty, Holmes comes off, at best, as looking negligent.

“I saw Lucky being attacked by a group… of dogs and when I tried to stop the attack, the dogs were aggressive and would not allow me to approach,” McCafferty wrote. “The owner was standing at the top of the hill watching. It wasn’t until I started screaming for help and telling him to retrieve his dogs, did he come down to get his dogs. He was not initially able to get control of his dogs. Eventually, he was able to retrieve Lucky and placed him on our deck. Lucky was unresponsive and his intestines were hanging out. His neck was gouged and was bloodied from the attack; he was dead.”

Holmes could not be reached for comment today as he is at the moment racing the Kobuk 440 sled dog race that starts out of Kotzebue, a Bering Sea village far off the road system in Northwest Alaska. A race tracker put him today near Ambler, an even more remote community than Kotzebue.

McCafferty said the third-place finisher in this year’s Iditarod did apologize after the attack.

“He got his dogs back up to his truck and returned to apologize,” she wrote. “He stated that he had picked up a couple of dogs that he wasn’t familiar with and didn’t think they would do this. He stated that he would do anything to ‘make things right.’ I asked him to leave as I was too angry to speak to him and asked for his name and contact information, which he provided. With assistance from a friend, we transported Lucky to Tier 1 veterinary clinic where he was pronounced dead on arrival.”

The Iditarod was not commenting.

Why Holmes would turn his dogs loose in the rear parking lot of Grandview Inn in Wasilla is unclear as is why he didn’t chase after them after they left the parking lot or, if McCafferty’s account is accurate, immediately respond to the sounds of a dog fight.

Loose dogs in packs, sometimes even those that have been fairly well socialized, don’t always behave well. The winner of this year’s Iditarod – Brent Sass from Eureka – lost a prized lead dog when it was attacked and killed by the rest of his team after they got loose after parked them along the Denali Highway in the winter of 2015-16.

Most are well-behaved

Julie St. Louis, who runs the August Foundation, noted that such behavior on the part of Iditarod dogs is rare these days. The August Foundation rehomes retired sled dogs. 

“The Iditarod dogs are some of the best socialized because they have to be for all the vets and kids and others they are around,” she said. “They’ve been handled so much they are wonderful, good with other dogs, even cats and kids…and pet rabbits. I’ve had Iditarod dogs just let a rabbit mosey on by.”

Some dogs are, however, better socialized than others. Both Holmes and Sass live in relatively remote areas where their dogs are likely to have less day-to-day exposure to people and other dogs.

The 40-year-old Holmes, a star in the show “Life Below Zero,” is based near Brushkana, a nowhere place along the only “Denali Highway” in Central Alaska. He relocated there two years ago from the less remote community of Nenana where one of his mentors had been former Iditarod champ Gerald  ‘Jerry’ Riley, whose dog yard Holmes bought.

Riley, now 86, is an old-school dog driver with a checkered history with the Iditarod. Riley dates back to a time when Iditarod dogs were not nearly as socialized as they are today, a time when Iditarod dogs were treated more like farm animals than pets.

The Iditarod banned Riley for life in 1990 after he smacked a dog with an iron snowhook and broke some of its teeth, but his problems date back to well before that.

Iditarod first suspended Riley after he had two dogs in his team die during the 1981 race. Riley blamed the deaths on steroids, which he said had probably been administered to the dogs by the musher from whom Riley had obtained the dogs before the race. 

Holmes’s explanation that the Wasilla attack could be blamed on “a couple of dogs that he wasn’t familiar with” is remarkably similar to that old claim of Riley’s.

The attack on Lucky was reported to the Wasilla Police Department, which appears to have done a thorough investigation.

City officials, McCafferty wrote, first “informed us that Mr. Holmes had not returned any of the voice messages that had been left for him (possibly because Holmes was already on his way Kotzebue.) (The officer) stated that given that he wasn’t able to speak directly with Mr. Holmes, that he resides in Nenana, and because I was unable to provide information as to how many dogs were involved, other than mine, he was only able to issue a single citation.”

The investigation did not, however, stop there.

McCafferty said she later received an April 4 e-mail informing her “that the Grandview Inn had been contacted and verified that they had video of the incident and would be providing that footage.

“On April 7, (a city official) contacted us by phone to let us know that he had reviewed the video which corroborated my account of the incident. He stated that there were ‘a lot of dogs let loose all at once.’ He was able to see them running down the hill onto our property. He stated that he has never known a musher to ‘let dogs out, loose, all at once like that.’ He stated that, at most, they let two dogs out at a time and are restrained/under control. He stated that given this new information, he would be issuing multiple citations with the most serious being for animal cruelty.”

From that statement, it appears Holmes could be headed back to court, a place with which he is familiar.

Although the Anchorage Daily News in 2017 glorified Holmes as someone born in Alabama who “traveled to Montana and California and ‘ended up in jail a couple of times.’…(But) eventually had an epiphany: “That I wanted to live in the woods and the wilderness and be a mountain man…(where) dogs changed everything for me.”

His court file reflects a somewhat different picture. It is littered with small-claims court filings from creditors trying to collect from him and landlords trying to be rid of him. It does, however, indicate Holmes’s behavior changed about the time he got the reality TV gig.

And McCafferty did post that Holmes “stated that he would do anything ‘to make it right’ in regards to the death of Lucky, then expressed her own reservations as to how sincere the apology.

“We want to believe that he is truly, to his core, remorseful; we have to, for our own peace of mind,” she wrote. “You’ll forgive us if we are skeptical in the moment as I look on his public FB page. In my mind, if I could have it my way, I would like him to make a public statement on all of his social media platforms and go public, acknowledging that there was a terrible incident that happened, to be truthful about his role in it, to assure the community that he will adhere to maintaining control of his animals as required by law, and to use this as an opportunity to educate others about responsible pet ownership and accountability so that this doesn’t happen again.

“Let’s be frank, it was completely avoidable. We would hope, as a self-professed animal lover and responsible pet owner, he would want to do that.”

There is as yet nothing on Holmes’ Facebook page. The woman posting Kobuk coverage there for Holmes race fan said she couldn’t talk for Holmes and while having read about the Wasilla incident on Facebook knew nothing about it.

Wasilla Police said code compliance officer Charlie Seidl would have to answer any questions as to what charges, if any, Wasilla planned to file in connection with the case. Seidl was in the field and not immediately returning phone calls on Friday.

A dispatcher at the police station added that the department’s public information officer was already starting to get a lot of calls about the Facebook post.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained the wrong location for Holmes’ now main base of operations.













35 replies »

  1. It’s common knowledge among winter users of the Denali Highway where Jessie has a cabin and trains his dogs that he was involved in at least two situations where he killed moose that threatened his dog team this winter. I get that. It’s been a winter of record snowfall out there and the moose are understandably aggressive about not giving up the trail. Less understandable is Jessie failing to make any effort to salvage the meat. Claiming to not know that moose killed in defense of property must be salvaged is no excuse. Questionable character.

    • well that raises a big question: did he report the kills as Matthew Failor did after having to kill a moose with a knife in the middle of his dog team in one of the great, untold man-saves-dogs stories of the winter?

    • Possibly a little, but this isn’t the Iditarod of old that was mainly about winning. This is a new Iditarod that proclaims itself “all about the dogs.”

      And in an arduous dog making that claim, character matters. Who you associate with, who you admire and what your court record says, all – for better or worse – go to the issue of character.

  2. All it takes is 2 dogs to make a pack, the social dynamics changes even sweet Fi Fi with the more pack animals.Thats basic multi dog owner 101.I dont understand why all or most all dogs were let go.Gauranteed if it was my dog being attacked,there’d be kicked in rib cages and snapped necks, dislocated limbs.
    Utter lack of basic situational awareness, thats why we have more encroaching laws.To save the many from the stupid few.I hope theres a lawsuit, send him back from wherever he came.
    Or he could get a real job….

  3. Shame on you for bringing up Gerald Riley to cast doubt on Jessie, and shame again for referencing any problems he may have had long ago with the courts. Neither of these things have anything to do with what happened. No doubt he was negligent, but I would love to start seeing actual unbiased reporting again. Try waiting until you get the other side of the story so you can give a more balanced view.

    • First off, facts have no bias. They are simply facts.

      Some facts, as in this case, go to the issues of behavior and character. This would matter less if Holmes’s problems were “long ago.” They’re not. In looking at court records just now it appears his PFDs, which have been garnished to pay off some of his debtors for some time were last dispersed on Feb. 14, 2022. If you don’t believe me, go look it up.

      One conclusion to be drawn from this is that he has a different sense of responsibility than other people. And his sense of responsibility goes directly to what happened here.

      Holmes is a personable guy. A lot of mushers are. Whether this offsets other behaviors is up to every reader to decide. I personally can’t wait to hear his explanation of what happened.

  4. I’m not sure what the Iditarod has to do with this story, it’s almost like blaming the NFL for Dwayne Haskins death.

    • The Iditarod has everything to do with this story. They are the primary reason a musher like Holmes can support multiple doglots with dogs on chains who’s sole purpose it is to complete in commercial long distance dog races. They also provide him with money (race earnings) to keep this cycle going. Do you honestly think mushers could afford to feed 50-100 dogs each if it was not for the Iditarod clout that provides them with unlimited sponsors from the lower 48? Up until the Iditarod was started, most trappers and explores ran around 7 dogs on a dog team which was the most you could possibly bring into the cabin at 30 below. Unfortunately, instead of speaking up and offering an apology to the McCafferty’s , the ITC’s reticent behavior tells us all we need to know.

      • Steve,
        So your employer is responsible for your actions away from work? Because they provide you money in exchange for your labor and you use that money to buy a vehicle and sustain yourself, it’s their fault you speed? Or in this case a third party who awards a prize is responsible for the actions of someone they awarded a monetary prize to? That’s completely absurd.

        If what was reported here is the whole truth, then there is one responsible party.

      • Steve-O, Team Biden says “if you murder someone with a gun, it is the guns fault”. Take that racist who shot-up the NYC subway. Biden says it is the “ghost” guns fault. So, I guess if you drive drunk it is your employers fault for giving you the money to buy the car and the cars fault for you driving drunk. Silly logic, but Joe’s a brains not all there…

      • That’s an interesting analogy given that it’s pretty clear that if you kill someone with your car it is the car’s fault. Unless, of course, you’re drunk. Then it becomes you’re fault. We do sometimes hold objects, not people, responsible.

    • The nfl fed dwayne and gave him the money to travel in front of that car – so of course we can blame nfl .😉 I like this . Interesting.

  5. The loss of a pet is always tragic. Perhaps everyone should wait until the video from the hotel can be viewed. Then the dogs might be identified. i wonder what the motivation was to release this during the Kobuk 440. Right now the only information is from one side. In fairness, both sides need to be heard from in order to know all the facts.

    • Maggi: I don’t think the owners of the dead dog who posted on Facebook had a clue that the Kobuk 440 was going on, let alone that Holmes was racing it. All they knew was that he was responsible for the dogs that killed their pet, said he was sorry in the moment, and then split.
      I doubt most of the Alaskans who read the story knew the Kobuk was going on.

  6. Keeping a sled dog team out of trouble is more difficult than keeping the Oakland Raiders out of trouble. Too bad for Holmes and the sled dog industry.

    • He still keeps his doglot in nenana going. Splits his time. Part brushkana part nenana thats what locals claim anyway.

  7. Just an FYI, Craig, Jesse Holmes is no longer living in Nenana. Two years ago he set up a new homestead with his dogs in Brushkana, some thirty miles or so from Cantwell along the Denali Highway.

    • Yes, I know. Brain fart. It’s been fixed. Well familiar with Brushkana. Used to catch grayling there in the ’70s and once a miniature char.

  8. I would never fall asleep driving or drive tired. Only bad people fall asleep driving or drive sleepy.

    Reads like Jessie is like the rest of us and except he didn’t hide from his “moment” and acknowledged responsibility.

    Steve-Cats that are kept inside most of their life become aggressive overtime and when let out slaughter birds and voles. Correct? Logical?

    • Bad analogy. A.) People who fall asleep at the wheel often pay a price; Holmes paid no price, which leads to B.) There is a difference between acknowledging responsibility and accepting responsibility.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about what the situation would be if his dogs had mauled to death some other musher’s dog. I’m confident, having been around the sport for a long time, there would be some serious discussions about “compensation” underway, and that the dead dog, no matter its quality, would have been “the best sled-dog I ever owned.”

      And in the case of certain mushers, if the issue couldn’t be settled in a friendly manner, there would surely have been litigation.

      All Lucky’s owners appear to want is a public apology and maybe a promise it won’t happen again. Do those seem like unreasonable demands?

      • Wait. Your assuming all sort of things. Jessie is off-grid, give it time and then pass judgement. If I fall asleep at the wheel, which everyone is capable of doing, and I cause damage, settlement is not instantaneous.

  9. Seems like all of the dogs were off leash. Does the city of Wasilla have a leash law? Leash laws in urban settings prevent human and animal dog bites pure and simple. I would never think of letting my huskies run free in Wasilla. The owner of the dogs that attacked should be liable for damages. Luckily a small child was not involved (as was the case with other prior Iditarod attacks). There have been many such attacks documented throughout the state over the last fifty years and several children have died as a result, not to mention countless dog lot deaths that have gone unreported. Dogs that live the majority of their lives on short chains grow aggressive over time, this has been proved over & over again in AK. I have a friend in Willow whose dog was attacked and killed while he was walking him out on the road…a neighborhood dog broke free from his tether and attacked. Sadly, these are very good reasons for concealed carry laws in America.

    • “It’s really important to note that there’s really no state criminal statute that makes it illegal for a dog to bite another person unless a person was to directly give a dog an attack order,” said McDaniel.

      “Last year, loose dogs in Chevak attacked a 3-year-old, who was flown to Anchorage for treatment. According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, there were 982 reported dog bites in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta between 2007 and 2017.” ADN

    • Steve,
      Outside of municipal or city codes, in Alaska you do not need concealed carry…open carry is a thing and normal for protection from animals. Shooting a dog is also not a crime in Alaska, a dog is property and if a property owner allows his\her property off his\her property and one feels the need to protect themselves shooting a dog does not even warrant a visit by law enforcement…per AST. I have a neighbor that thinks their dog is the sweetest nicest dog in the world but tries to attack me and my leashed dogs every time I walk by and the neighbor wouldn’t even try and recall the dog. After numerous shouting matches about them controlling their dog (property) it was noted that I am well within my rights to drop their property in the street, the dog no longer bothers me on walks with my leashed dogs. I don’t want to shoot a dog, dogs do what their owners allow. I don’t think there are bad dogs, but there are bad owners. We haven’t heard the other side of the story, but it certainly sounds like this is a bad owner situation by both parties, as the story is told neither owner had control of their property.

      • I hadn’t read the Facebook account by the owner of Lucky before posting this, by her account the dog was leashed in a fenced yard.

      • All the same good point steve o . The owner had some responsibility to protect their dog even if leashed. Guessing a 44 would have changed the story

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