Unwanted sled dogs get dumped

Advocates spend countless hours trying to find homes for dogs

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Every year, as the snow begins to melt, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Shelter experiences what has come to be known as the "the spring husky dump."

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"Mid-April: taxes are due, and here come the huskies," said sled dog advocate Ronnie Rosenberg.

Rosenberg is just one of many in Fairbanks who spend countless hours year-round, on the Internet and phone, trying to find homes for unwanted sled dogs.

But every spring, after the major races in the state are finished and mushers, mostly those who weren't as successful as they would've liked, clean out their dog lots.

Dozens of sled dogs are brought in during the months of April and May and the majority are perfectly capable, working sled dogs, said Carol Kleckner, a volunteer husky-trainer and shelter volunteer.

She knows because each week, Kleckner - a competitive musher for 12 years - takes huskies from the shelter, hooks them up to a sled or ATV in team formation and runs them.

She carefully watches each dog before, during and after the short training run, and then writes detailed descriptions of their performance before e-mailing hundreds of mushers around the country.

She works as a waitress at night to have her days free care for, train and hopefully find homes for dozens of sled dogs each year through the Fairbanks shelter and a local, grass roots organization called the Second Chance League.

The league has been in operation for four years in Fairbanks and is run by volunteers who train discarded sled dogs and find foster or permanent homes for them. It's a labor of love, but one that breaks her heart every single day because the ones that don't find homes either through the shelter or the league are euthanized.

"It's way harder to place a dog in the offseason. But at least if a dog is brought here, we're going to make its last day the best day of that dog's life," she said. "There are worse things than death like starving at 40 below. And animal abuse isn't just a problem here with sled dogs, it's a problem all over the United States."

So far this spring, the shelter has reached its maximum at 25 huskies. In one week, three were put to death. Five were adopted, which is encouraging but very rare to have that many find homes in one week, said Sandy Klimaschesky, the lead animal tender at the shelter.

Sometimes because the shelter is so full, some dogs go right from the front door to get euthanized, she said.

Some people, however, bring in their huskies for other reasons.

Recently, seven huskies arrived at the shelter from the same kennel where the owner was simply too sick after a major operation to care for them.

But the facts are that each year, more than 1,000 sled dogs wind up at the shelter and of those, only about a third are adopted.

"There's absolutely no way to have a no-kill shelter here," said Klimaschesky. "But we do our very best to find them all homes."

For Lance Mackey, the 2007 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion, finding homes for his dogs isn't a problem anymore.

Everyone wants a dog from Mackey's Comeback Kennel these days. But even before he made history by winning both 1,000-mile races in the same year, he said he never resorted to dumping unwanted dogs at the shelter. However, he added, he's not necessarily opposed to it, it just depends on the circumstance.

"Some people get dogs just for the sake of having a dog team and then realize what a financial commitment it is. In that case, I would rather see a dog go to the shelter to get euthanized than sit there or be mistreated," he said. "It's unfortunate that there are no guidelines for people to own dogs."

State veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach said he's not sure of the logic behind dumping off huskies at the shelter but added that mushers are looking for more than a dog than simply run for a long time.

"A dog has to be able to work as a team ... here are many different characteristics that make a successful team," he said.

Sure a dog that runs well in harness is great, but most mushers wants dogs that also have strong feet, healthy appetites and a good temperament. And that comes from careful, and sometimes costly, breeding with champion bloodlines.

But the breeding isn't guaranteed, said Gerlach.

And perhaps that is why so many wind up at the shelter.

Though the huskies there may not be perfect, with some extra attention and TLC many mushers, both competitive and recreational, have nursed those outcasts into fine, working sled dogs.

Amanda Byrd, a competitive sprint racer in Fairbanks, has fostered or adopted several unwanted sled dogs over past few years.

In fact, she said, two of those shelter dogs are phenomenal leaders who have helped Byrd train her younger dogs.

"I think this is a huge problem of people dumping dogs because of irresponsible breeding," Byrd said. "I'm sure that if people just took the time to work with these dogs, they would really shine. They certainly have for me."

As for the Iditarod and Yukon Quest organizations, both have the rule that no musher convicted of abuse or neglect is eligible to run the race.

"We believe the highest standards should be applied" when it comes to running a kennel, competitive or recreational, said Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George. "I think the shelters do a phenomenal job and we have many active groups here (Wasilla) and in the Anchorage area that work hard in terms of finding foster care and placement for dogs."

The Yukon Quest has an extensive database of sled dogs that have microchips for the race and works with the shelter to try and reunite lost dogs with their owners, said Julie Estey, the executive director.

As a musher, Estey added that sometimes dog drivers might take dogs into the shelter in hopes that the dog will find a better home.

But to try and alleviate the overcrowding problem each spring in Fairbanks, Rosenberg, president of the Fairbanks Animal Shelter Fund, has started a campaign to educate mushers.

If they would only bring them in over the summer, or even during the winter, the dogs would have a greater chance of living, she said. The Shelter Fund is a nonprofit group which provides extra amenities for shelter huskies such as bones, straw and houses and also provides support to mushers who are having trouble with the expensive upkeep of sled dogs.

The help is provided to try and prevent more dogs coming into the shelter and ultimately being put to death.

When it does come time at the shelter to decide which dog gets euthanized and which lives, it's up to Klimaschesky. Sometimes, she says, the decision is easier because a dog will come in that is feral and aggressive. Other times, it will come down to the dog's age or health or general adoptability.

"We keep them for as long as we can," said Klimaschesky. "We make those tough choices every day."

But recently, the Second Chance League has made contact with some sled-dog drivers in the Lower 48 who are interested in adopting some of the Alaska rejects.

"We have a surplus of dogs here but mushing is really growing in a lot of parts of the United States where they can't get huskies," said Don Kiely, president of the Second Chance League. "They might have to pay upwards of $1,000 for a husky, particularly a trained one."

Already, several shelter huskies have been shipped south, but the logistics of shipping a dog from Alaska are still a hindrance.

"We have an incredible resource here and we have too many of them but so far, we've been able to find ways to get them down there," Kiely said.

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