In 2002, I helped with a major rescue operation of a “dog yard” in Fairbanks, Alaska. To Alaskans, the term dog yard immediately brings to mind a group of hardworking sled dogs, the heartbeats of our Alaskan trails. But when I arrived, I found not a single well-fed and cared for working animal. Instead, dogs numbering in the hundreds ran loose or sat chained in horrid conditions. The sight made me want to pummel the owner. Then I met him. He was just a kindly old-timer with a piece of land who had set out only wanting to help abused and abandoned sled dogs. Word had spread that he’d accept any dog in need, offering an alternative to euthanization. But they’d become too expensive.
Officials estimated the final count at over 400—a mere fraction of the sled dogs that are sent to local pounds every year to be euthanized. The pound dogs are discarded for various reasons, but mostly they’re too slow, old, or prone to injury. The dogs in this yard were sick, starved, and barely surviving the 40-below zero temps. I could barely stomach it. But I helped get them out, and adopted three. As the huskies recovered, a shine returned to their eyes and I began seeing their personalities. Huskies are smart, loyal, and love winter and exercise. I had to keep helping. And after seven years of working with sled dogs and successfully training a cohesive team, I had a wealth of knowledge for the breed.
I rehabilitated and adopted out several to new owners before officially starting Sled Dog Sanctuary in 2002. We focus on the hard cases, the dogs that have been starved and neglected. Today, we’ve expanded from a three-acre parcel to 40 sprawling acres just outside of Talkeetna, Alaska. We now accommodate over 40 sled dogs in need, and always keep our doors open to mushers who can no longer care for their huskies. We also work with animal shelters and other rescue outfits by encouraging sled dog adoptions, educating the public about huskies, and, for some dogs, offering a permanent home here at the Sanctuary.
Along with receiving basic care, food, and housing, when our dogs are healthy they’re given the choice to run in a team again. There’s no better reward than hooking up a team of excited sled dogs, all barking and lunging. When we release the tie-off, we hang on as the team pulls us silently down miles of snowy trail with views of 20,310-foot Denali. It’s moments like this when I’m the most grateful for what I get to do.
Learn more by visiting sleddogsanctuary.com. From the Early Winter 2016 issue.