Vets were once unsure whether Zeke would live. Now, he’s racing in the Iditarod.

A dog tied up in a harness leaps in the air on a flat, ice-coered river
Zeke on a training run on the Tanana River. (Photo courtesy of Kailyn Davis)

Many of the top dog teams in this year’s Iditarod are racing with proven pedigrees from the past championship teams. They come from the hallowed bloodlines of legendary kennels like the ones run by mushers Jeff King, Dick Mackey and Rick Swenson. 

Then there’s 7-year-old Zeke.

Zeke is one of two dogs in 29-year-old rookie musher Kailyn Davis’ team that she adopted from the Fairbanks animal shelter. Now, he’s racing the Iditarod with her in just over a week. 

Zeke’s life has changed a lot since Davis first spotted him six years ago. 

At the time, she was gearing up for a skijor race in Fairbanks. But it was so cold, she needed a jacket for one of her dogs. She went into a pet store, and spotted a hairless and scabby Alaskan husky. 

Zeke shortly after he was adopted. Vets said his condition was caused by an autoimmune reaction. (Photo courtesy of Kailyn Davis)

Here’s how Davis describes what happened next:

This transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity. 

I walk into Cold Spot and there’s this dog who’s kind of just sickly, naked — he just has like tufts of fur. It’s scabby and gross. I was just wondering: What’s wrong with that dog? Usually I’m not the type of person that talks to people in public, but for whatever reason, I needed to figure out what’s going on with this dog.

I started talking to the lady who had him there. Her name is Nicole Silvers, and she does a lot of fostering through the Fairbanks shelter.

The next day, I get off the Tanana River challenge, I go straight to the shelter and met Nicole there with him and adopted Zeke. 

Basically, the whole issue with his skin was a stress reaction.

The vets were not sure if he was gonna recover from that because it was such a large area affected. The vets have tried a few medications and it wasn’t really working. And so they’re just like, ‘Okay, well switch them again, switch them again,’ but nothing was really working.

Vets weren’t confident he was necessarily going to survive. They said, ‘Well, there’s one more medication we can try. We’ll give it a shot and see if it works.’

On top of that I was giving him Benadryl for his itchiness. I was giving him like fish oil and salmon oil and eggs and all this stuff to try and like just help his skin. 

The vets were able to order a special kind of mousse instead of a shampoo where I could just sponge him and then put this mousse on his skin and then wipe it off. So he was getting these kind of weird dry cabin sink baths for quite a while. And he hated that. 

I’d take him to work with me and he’d sit in the car. And it was like, you could smell his skin kind of like dying. It was really gross. It’s like just this decaying, rotting kind of flesh smell. It was really gross.

To kind of help him we started going on walks and he liked being outside.

I noticed that after he had run, he was less anxious, he wasn’t as itchy, he was a lot more comfortable and could actually like relax and sleep a little bit. So we just kept that up and kept going on more, and more and more runs. And he started growing more hair back. 

I started training with musher Al Eischens down in Wasilla. And we were gonna do a couple of qualifiers for Iditarod and so I ran dogs with him on the weekends. 

We’re standing around after the Copper Basin 300. That was my last race of that season and 2016 and Al was running Iditarod that year. And he asked, ‘Hey, does Zeke want to go to the Iditarod?’

A black and white dog lying in the mountins in the background
Zeke in the Alaska Range on a trip with Iditarod rookie Kailyn Davis. (Photo courtesy of Kailyn Davis)

At that point, Copper Basin finished in January. So it was in another month and a half. And I was like, ‘I don’t know, do you think he can go on?’

I almost said no, because I was selfish. I thought ‘no’ because that means he has to go train in Wasilla for the next month and a half. And I don’t want to leave him, you know.

Zeke started Iditarod but I didn’t even buy my Nome tickets for the longest time because while I wanted to see Zeke finish – I didn’t think he’s gonna finish.

And then like Zeke’s getting farther and farther in the race. Finally, I bought a ticket, got to Nome and we had some friends drive us out to see the teams coming across the sea ice before they got into town.

I was just trying not to cry: I was just thinking: ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s my Zeke!’

A white woman holds a dog in her lap in some green mountains
Davis on a trip in the Alaska Range with Zeke. (Photo courtesy of Kailyn Davis)

Zeke made it the whole way, came across the finish line, was still excited and wanted to keep going. Like, this is insane.

I wasn’t sure if he’d run Iditarod with me this year. He’s just been a house dog for the last couple years. And I don’t know if he really wants to, like, train that intensely again. It wasn’t a question of whether he wanted to run, but I didn’t know if he wanted to do Iditarod. 

I threw him in the team because otherwise he was just sitting at home screaming if he got left behind. And he did not like that. So started just letting him come along. And Zeke just kept coming along the whole season. He’s been amazing.

 I’m planning to have him be in lead — at least the ceremonial start.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.