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.