Race Marshall Calls Dog Death One Of The Worst Tragedies In Iditarod History

The Iditarod Race Marshall is calling the death of a dropped dog in Unalakleet this year one of the worst tragedies in the race’s history.  The Iditarod Trail committee has since launched an investigation into what happened.  They’re working with the dog’s owner to develop better dog care standards for the future.

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Over the last week, Iditarod Race Marshall and Director Mark Nordman, has been in discussions with the race’s head Veterinarian, as well as rookie musher Paige Drobny about what could have been done to prevent the death of Drobny’s dog, Dorado. “Right now, I still stand by our program,” he says.  “I stand by my Head Vet.  It’s something we have to learn from.  Anytime we have something tragic like this, you gotta learn from it.”

When Drobny pulled her team into the Unalakleet checkpoint, more than 700 miles into the race, she knew she had to leave her Dorado behind. “Well, Dorado has been sort of stiff on his front end since Ophir,” she explains.  “I had a vet check him over and they couldn’t find anything wrong with him.  He started to get stuffer as it went on, so I just decided in Unalakleet he didn’t need to go anymore.  He was getting tired.”

Dorado was scheduled to fly back to Anchorage with a group of other dropped dogs, but high winds and blowing snow grounded commercial flights and more than 130 dogs remained in the checkpoint for more than three days.  The majority of the dogs were moved inside, but Dorado was among 30 that were not.  On the morning of March 15th, Dorado was found buried in drifted snow.  Preliminary necropsy results show the dog died from asphyxiation. Since news of the death broke, the Iditarod Trail Committee, or ITC, has faced scrutiny about the organization’s ability to provide quality dog care along more than 900 miles of remote trail between Anchorage and Nome.  Some of that scrutiny has come from mushers including Paige Drobny. “I did a great job taking care of my dogs!” Drobny laughs, sheepishly.  “You know, the vets that are out there are doing their best but I don’t know them all there was a lot of them.”

Race logistics along the Iditarod trail are complicated.  Nearly all of the checkpoints are accessible only by air.  It’s difficult to move more than 40 veterinarians around so they can see dog teams repeatedly. “I don’t know even if I saw one vet twice and because it’s my first year,” she says. “I didn’t know any of those vets and I didn’t get to develop a relationship with any of them.”

With the exception of the Head Veterinarian, all race vets are also volunteers.   They do have to apply for the position and they must be licensed.  They also attend a series of trainings and workshops hosted by the ITC prior to the race. Mark Nordman says paying vets may not make a difference. “I wouldn’t say paid veterinarians would be any better,” he says.  “In my opinion they would not be better because these people are here for the passion of the even t and the dogs.”

But Drobny says there are ways to improve vet care on the trail.  She dropped six of her 16 starting dogs in this year’s Iditarod.  Prior to the race start, she lined up a handler to pick up those dogs when they arrived back in Anchorage, but they were hard to track down.  Currently there is no standard system to track dropped dogs as they are transferred between checkpoints. Drobny thinks the race should implement a system much like that used by shipping companies like Fedex. “As soon as that dog gets on a plane, it gets scanned and all the information like when it was last fed or when it gets meds, all that information would be with that scan so that everyone would have that information and it could get lost,” explains Drobny.

The ITC released a list of three major changes they will implement to improve care for dropped dogs. They plan to build boxes to house dogs in the larger hub checkpoints of McGrath and Unalakleet.  They will arrange for more frequent flights out of checkpoints.  Veterinarians will also patrol dropped dog lots more frequently in the future. Drobny calls the changes “positive” and Mark Nordman agrees. “If you’re not trying to improve. Than you shouldn’t hold a position in any venue that we deal with,” says Nordman. “We see that our care of the dogs has improved as far as what we’ve learned from the dogs. It just continues.  It’s just an evolving process.”

Nordman has been involved with the race in some capacity since 1983. In 30 years, he’s never seen a an incident like this. “It was the biggest hit I’ve ever had in all my involvement with Iditarod,” he says.  “Whether it was the five times racing that I did. Once the events start, my position oversees all things Iditarod and it was a huge hit.  A lot of emotions, a lot of emotions for everyone involved and they’re still feeling that.”

Drobny acknowledges that her dog’s death is likely one of the worst tragedies in the Iditarod’s 41 year history. She says she and husband and fellow musher Cody Strathe haven’t decided if they’ll enter another Iditarod. “We were just saying it might be nice next year for both of us to run the race together with Dorado’s ashes and take him back out on the trail.  And go to those dog drops and see those changes implemented would be a cool thing for the two of us to do.”

The ITC will continue to look into ways to further improve dog care.  Further necropsy results for Dorado are due out within the next 30 days.

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