Iditarod checkpoint enforces ordinance to control loose dog population as mushers arrive

Iditarod frontrunner Nicolas Petit mushes out of Unalakleet on Sunday, March 11, 2018. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media photo)

Coinciding with the Iditarod sled dog race, Unalakleet issued an emergency ordinance to address loose dogs running free around the community.

Many residents complained about a problem, and not everyone is happy with the solution:

Interim City Manager Davida Hanson explained why the City Council voted in January, before the 2018 Iditarod began, to allow local law enforcement to catch loose dogs with or without collars.

“One of the reasons that the city decided to do an emergency ordinance was because there were so many loose dogs in town and also because Iditarod was going to be coming through,” Hanson said. “With the problem we were having, we didn’t want that to affect Iditarod, and we didn’t want to have loose dogs running around during Iditarod, with all the dog mushers coming through.”

Another concern, according to Hanson, was that the growing population of foxes in the area could carry a risk of rabies and potentially infect one of these loose dogs, which would be even more of a concern to deal with.

If dogs with collars are found, then they are held in a public dog pen for 24 hours, where their owners can pick up the dogs for a fine of $50.

Hanson said the city then contacts the pet owner and allows them time to get their pets, but if the 24 hours is up or the dog is found without a collar, then something more drastic happens.

“If the dogs don’t have a collar on them, then we are assuming that the dog doesn’t belong to anybody, and can be, according to the ordinance, all uncollared dogs will be caught and dispatched immediately in a humane manner,” Hanson said.

According to Hanson, it’s up to the Unalakleet police department to determine what qualifies as a humane way to dispatch un-collared dogs.

Local resident Charaleigh (Chara) Blatchford said their methods have not been exactly humane.

“I have had pets before that I’ve never collared, we don’t believe in tying our pets up,” Blatchford said. “Mom had let the dog out to use the bathroom, tried to call him back in, within a 20-minute period, and the dog never came back, so we figured he was just running around, he’d be fine, it has happened before.”

The next day after her dog didn’t return, Blatchford found her pet had been dispatched or shot and disposed of, then left at the community dump.

Blatchford knows of at least two local family’s dogs, including her own pet, who have been shot and killed in Unalakleet.

Blatchford would like to prevent that from happening to more pet owners in the community.

“I think that they could have kept putting the dogs inside the kennels, with or without a collar. I don’t understand the difference between the two,” Blatchford said. “It’s a small enough community where you know who everyone’s pets are, and just simply asking somebody if you don’t know, somebody in the neighborhood is going to know.”

To people like Blatchford, who have found their pets deceased in the local dump, Hanson said the city of Unalakleet apologizes, but the local government felt it needed to do something to control the number of untethered dogs.

“It seems to be working, and we hope that the community will continue to keep their dogs tied up,” Hanson said. “If you are out walking your dog, walk it with a leash. And if this is your pet and you don’t want something to happen to it, then everybody should take care of their pets.”

The Unalakleet City Council will meet in tonight, and Hanson said the loose dog issue is on the agenda.

This emergency ordinance is set to expire nine days from now, on March 22, after all the Iditarod mushers have come and gone.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.