Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Marissa Tiel

RUN TO CARMACKS – Aliy Zirkle’s team runs along the Yukon River near Carmacks during the 2017 Yukon Quest 300.

‘It’s all about the dogs,' says ED

A documentary film criticizing the sled dog industry is still sending shockwaves through the community.

By Marissa Tiel on May 17, 2017

Yukon Quest to refocus on canine care

A documentary film criticizing the sled dog industry is still sending shockwaves through the community.

Sled Dogs, which premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in November 2016, is critical of the sled dog industry and follows four narrative threads: the story of a rookie Iditarod musher, a sled dog tour operation in Ontario, dog abuse at a now-defunct lot in Colorado and the slaughter of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, B.C. following the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The film, which was seen by two members of the board of directors last week, doesn’t name the Yukon Quest organization, but Yukon executive director Natalie Haltrich said that the race needs to be better than the status quo.

“This certainly isn’t the first attack on the industry, it certainly won’t be the last,” she told a mostly full room of members at the Yukon Quest annual general meeting at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre last night. “We will be at fault if we don’t learn from it and figure out what we need to do as an organization, making ourselves better.”

Frank Turner, who has run the Yukon Quest 24 times and has won the 1,600-kilometre race once in 1995, would like to see the financial statement be more transparent when it comes to vet costs.

He said he would like to see a line item in the document for the veterinarian program.

During a budget question period, Turner said that the race does not currently have a vet “program that is the envy.”

Included in the vision of the Yukon Quest is “developing a canine care program that is the envy of all sled dog races,” which is listed as an area of growth over the next five years.

In 1984, for US$25,000, Turner said the “vet program was the envy of sled dog races.”

While there is no line item, the vet program costs are divided into their respective categories on the main budget.

This year, Haltrich said the vet program came in at about US$35,000.

“We’ve all recognized Frank’s words as a priority,” said Haltrich after the meeting. “It comes down to the dogs. It’s all about the dogs.

“We have to continue what we’re doing well and we have to be deliberate, be more strategic ... [and] work with more intent towards that.”

With 21 mushers and 15 vets on the trail this year, Haltrich called it an amazing ratio.

The race continues to dig its way out of debt. Haltrich said that approximately $23,000 remains to be paid back.

She told the meeting during her executive director’s report that it was her goal this year to pay it off fully.

“It’s not out of the realm of doing it,” she said. “I have to stay positive, because I know it’s possible.”

In its 34th running, the Quest also put an emphasis on First Nations at the start line this year.

The Dakhká Khwáan dancers danced down the chute prior to the teams and Armin Johnson drove a team of sprint sled dogs about two kilometres down the course adorned in First Nation dog blankets, which were handmade by a group of First Nations women.

“I want to really give First Nations a bit more room and space in the race,” said Haltrich.

The Yukon Quest also sold approximately $70,000 worth of merchandise this year.

While Haltrich said that the sitting dog design remains their most popular, this year a design by Monika Melnychuk was added to the roster and included on toddler t-shirts.

“I always like having a design of the year,” said Haltrich.

The Yukon Quest ran a $38,998 surplus this year, $2,688 better than in 2016, which was the first year the organization had run in the black for a number of years.

The 2017/18 year will be Haltrich’s second time planning a finish year of the race, with its planned start in Fairbanks next February.

It will also be the first full year of employment with the Quest for its other year-round staff member, Laura Vinnedge, who joined the team in September 2016 as the operations manager.

Leading up to the race’s 35th year, Vinnedge has been pulling archival content, which is being shared on the race’s social media channels.

“The sled dogs are such a part of this territory, our history,” said Haltrich.

“The race is honouring what they’ve done.”

Next year’s race will start on Feb. 3 in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Comments (2)

Up 1 Down 2

Ida koric on May 21, 2017 at 7:39 pm

As someone who has fostered over 60 rescue dogs (many of them needing rehab after "sled dog" life) I can tell you when​ dogs are at their happiest: running off leash through the forest with dog friends, and being touched and loved by their humans.
Sled dogs don't get either of these best parts of being alive, so enough with the "it's all for the dogs" garbage.

Up 2 Down 2

Margery on May 17, 2017 at 8:27 pm

Quest veterinarians should stop allowing sick dogs to race. In one Quest, Sebastian Schnuelle, Ken Anderson and Hans Gatt's dogs had kennel cough. Many of the same dogs still had the disease when these mushers raced them days later in the Iditarod. Learn more: http://helpsleddogs.org/the-harsh-reality/dog-injuries-sicknesses-and-extreme-stress/

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