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Sports archive for January 25, 2013

We bought a zoo: the story of musher Rob Cooke

British musher Rob Cooke’s decade-long dream to run the Yukon Quest will finally be fulfilled next weekend.

By Marcel Vander Wier on January 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm


Photo submitted

LIVING HIS DREAM – Rookie Yukon Quest musher Rob Cooke has been pursuing a chance to run the 1,000-mile trail with his Siberian Huskies since 2004. Photo courtesy of SEBASTIAN SCHNUELLE

British musher Rob Cooke’s decade-long dream to run the Yukon Quest will finally be fulfilled next weekend.

The 46-year-old rookie is one of 26 mushers registered for the 1,000-mile race that runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. The race begins Feb. 2.

Since 2004, Cooke has been working towards his goal of running the Quest – with a pursuit so relentless that he even purchased a 100-acre zoo.

Cooke spent his early career working as an aircraft engineer with the British military. He and his wife Louise spent their spare time mountaineering.

The two began to look for a dog that could accompany them on the trail when Louise’s father sent them a picture of an Alaskan Malamute wearing a pack. The Cookes mistook the dog for a Siberian Husky and purchased one soon after.

And so began a tale that took the couple on the adventure of their lives.

“Somebody said if you get one Siberian Husky, they need company,” Cooke explained. “So we got two.”

Not long after, they were introduced to a “three-wheeled rig” used for dryland racing. Cooke was 31 at the time.

“There’s a lot of purebred racing in the U.K.,” Cooke said. “At one time, it was all just Siberian Huskies that were racing.”

A few years into his dryland racing career, Cooke began to wonder what racing on snow would be like, and began to follow the Quest and Iditarod online. While the Iditarod is a “bigger deal” among British fans, Cooke said the Quest has seen a spike in popularity in Europe.

“I was always more interested in the Quest than the Iditarod,” he admitted. “I felt the Iditarod was too commercialized and the Quest was more of a close-knit thing.

“It’s always been billed as being a much tougher race. I thought it was maybe better for Siberians to do the tougher race.”

While watching the 2004 Quest, he asked himself a question.

“I just started to wonder: ‘Would there be any possibility that we could ever do it with our dogs?’ It really was just a stupid dream to start with. And then we just started to make things happen.”

A short time later, Cooke filed for a military posting in Canada. In 2005, the couple moved to Shubenacadie, N.S., where they worked on expanding their kennel Shaytaan Siberian Huskies.

While the couple soon realized the small farming community was not the mushing capital of Canada, they continued to pursue the dream of the Quest – buying and breeding dogs until their pack swelled to 45.

Today, Cooke’s dog team consists of purely purebred Siberian Huskies, ranging in age from two to seven.

When the military called him back to Britain in 2008, Cooke handed in his wings after a 23-year career, simply so he could remain in Canada.

It was at that time that the couple purchased a zoo in Edmundston, N.B. L’Aqua Zoo, as it was called, had recently closed and the majority of the animals were being sold.

“It had been a really big affair, but it just closed as we bought it,” Cooke said. “We had the property and the fencing, and four llamas, and they got rid of everything else.”

Despite the landmark purchase, he has never watched the 2011 film ‘We Bought A Zoo’ starring Matt Damon.

“My wife’s seen it,” Cooke chuckled. “She says they’re a little too much like us.”

Since then, he has worked at a call centre and repaired electronics, “anything we could do to raise money.”

“The focus has always been the Quest,” Cooke said. “We love Canada. Even if it wasn’t for the Quest, we wouldn’t want to go back to the U.K. now. We just love it, even more so now that we’re in the Yukon. But everything was for the Quest, yeah.”

The couple recently put the zoo on the market in a bid to move to Whitehorse permanently.

The Cookes and their dogs are currently staying with former Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle, who Cooke met while running the YQ300 in Fairbanks last year.

He finished the YQ300 and the Can-Am Crown 250 in Maine to qualify for the 2013 Quest.

“Since we’ve been here, all the local mushers have been very helpful,” Cooke said.

“It’s been unbelievable how fantastic all of them have been.”

His goal in the Quest is to enjoy the ride as much as possible, and finish the race with as many dogs as he can. His wife will provide support as his dog handler, as will a trio of friends flying in from Scotland.

On the eve of living his dream, Cooke said it has all been worth it.

“I thought I’d be nervous, but I’m not,” he said. “I’m just really looking forward to it.”

CommentsAdd a comment

Yvonne M Davis

Jan 26, 2013 at 12:37 am

Wishing this family all the luck in the world, this is a story they should make a film about x

Jamie Lawhon

Jan 26, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Best of luck and we will be following you during the quest. Love the Sibes and we have three ourselves and going to start dry land mushing with them shortly. God speed and mush on.

Andrea Gilroy

Jan 28, 2013 at 9:54 am

Hooray! A British musher! This British YQ fan will be following you with great interest. Good luck.

Poor dogs

Jan 30, 2013 at 4:44 am

And the dogs are disposed of when they are not useful anymore right? That’s just the cost of business right guys? The ends justifies the means? Poor dogs. At least I care for them. You guys are in my heart. It’s barbaric to view them as a way to earn an income. Pathetic. Mushing is not a job. You stand on a sled and do what again? Exactly. I would like to hook up 12 humans on a sled and race you guys for 2500km. Oh, is that a stupid comment? Right, you guys live in fantasy make believe world. Dee da dumm deee dee dum.


Jan 31, 2013 at 5:13 am

“Poor Dogs” if you don’t like it go somewhere else dog mushing is as much a part of the Yukon and Alaska as The Alaska Highway is.

Mike Grieco

Jan 31, 2013 at 8:01 am

Human beings breed and use animals for their own gains, and a prime example is the Yukon Quest. This race is all about people, not dogs. The dogs are chattel slaves: they are resources, property to be used for human entertainment.

The mushing industry needs to be shut down - abolished for good!

Bob Lewis.

Feb 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Wishing you all the very best, Rob! There’s people all over Europe who will be rooting for you! Just show those Yanks what you can do!
We’ll be thinking about you and Louise all the way! - and the dogs, of course!!

Tim Tedford

Feb 1, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I admire anyone with the willingness to sacrifice to fulfill a dream. the level of commitment required to even get to the start line is something most people cannot conceive of. The dogs must be everything, 24 hrs a day,feed,run,feed,run,massage,bedding…etc.
Anyone who believes that the dogs run these distances for any other reason than the love of it actually needs to get off their high horse and experience these amazing animals. As Jeff King said “you can’t push a rope”,meaning you can’t make dogs run.
The average person has no real idea of what most domestic animals are capable of, mushers are some of the few who do because they have such an intimate understanding of each dog and it’s needs.
Happy trails, Rob!


Feb 2, 2013 at 8:44 am

Hey!...Mike’s back…hi Mike!

Heading down to the quest start today….can’t wait!

Go dogs Go!


Feb 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Human beings breed and use animals for their own gains, and a prime example is Groundhog Day. This event is all about people, not groundhogs. The groundhogs are chattel slaves: they are resources, property to be used for human entertainment.

The groundhog and spring forecasting industry needs to be shut down - abolished for good!

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