Belle, a Second Chance League dog found as a stray near Two Rivers, left, Beau, a former Fairbanks North Star Borough shelter dog, and Mustang watch hopefully for their dinner Feb. 25 in Salcha.
Photos by Libbie Martin
The howls of anticipation begin as soon as the cabin door opens. As Matt and Donna Thompson make their way down the trail, Belle, Shasta and the rest of the Thompson crew hop on their kennels, prance eagerly and sing their delight -- someone’s mushing today.
Matt and Donna are relative newcomers to Alaska’s official sport. Matt, a medic with the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina, was assigned to Fort Wainwright in March 2004. Today they are mushing enthusiasts. But they also are mushers with a cause -- they’ve embraced the Second Chance League’s mission of reducing the numbers of huskies languishing at the Fairbanks North Star Bureau Animal shelter.
Donna is serving as vice president this year, and she and Matt have adopted and fostered a few of the rescued huskies, who now pull their sleds.
Beau jumps up on Donna Thompson as he eagerly waits being harnessed to the sled for a short run.
Photo by Libbie Martin
Belle is a recent addition. She was found wandering around Two Rivers not long ago. When she was taken to the shelter, a routine check discovered she has a Yukon Quest microchip, which means Belle is a Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race veteran, having at least started the grueling 1,000-mile run between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. But since no one claimed her or reported her missing, she was just another husky in the shelter, perhaps destined for euthanasia. Donna wasn’t willing to let that happen, so Belle became a foster dog in the Thompson kennel.
And after running her, Donna is even more puzzled. “I can’t find anything wrong with this dog,” she said.
The Second Chance League was chartered in October 2003, according to Lynn Orbison, musher, dog groomer and one of the founding members.
“Our entire mission is to reduce the number of huskies euthanized at the shelter,” Orbison said.
It’s puzzling, both Orbison and Donna say, that in the “Sled Dog Capital of the World,” large numbers of huskies are killed in local shelters yearly.
“Why?” Donna asks. “I scratch my head.”
The FNSB Shelter calls the league whenever a husky is brought to the shelter. League member Carol Kleckner takes them out for a “test drive” to see what they are made of. She drives a team of six to eight dogs, mixing the test dogs with experienced runners. She rarely has to pull any dog off the team. For any reason.
She switches the dogs to different positions, giving everyone a chance at lead. And whether they are natural leaders, excellent wheel dogs or content at swing, she usually knows when she’s got a winner.
“The top thing -- if the dog just likes to pull -- chances are there will be a home (for the dog),” she said.
In the years since its incorporation, Kleckner estimates the league has pulled several hundred huskies from the shelter. When a dog is pulled, it is put in a foster home (Donna is fostering Yukon Quest veteran Belle), until it is adopted.
Competitive mushers John Schandelmeier (who ran the 2007 Quest, finishing 11th) and his wife, Zoya DeNure, are supporters, having adopted numerous huskies from the shelter or through the league.
Schandelmeier, although no longer a member of the league (a “difference in philosophy,” he said via e-mail) and DeNure have numerous “rescued” huskies on their teams; they run the Crazy Dog Kennels and Alaskan Adventures in Paxson.
“The perception that a rescue dog is ‘different’ than other dogs is something that we have been battling (from) the beginning,” Schandelmeier said. “There is no difference whatsoever.”
Once a dog has been added to the 50-dog kennel, it is not distinguished as a “rescue,” Schandelmeier emphasized.
League members acknowledge that Schandelmeier has helped their cause tremendously.
“Schandelmeier is very competitive,” Kleckner said. “He sees potential where others don’t.”
Schandelmeier shares the league mindset, she continued, “that if a dog is structurally sound, has a good gait and has a fair amount of speed, that dog can be a champion.”
“Most mushers use ‘retreads,’” Orbison said. “They swap out with each other.”
Schandelmeier agrees, having passed on some of his rescues to other top mushers.
So the term “throwaways” that some mushers use when talking about shelter rescues annoys all of them.
Pedigree and parentage don’t guarantee a dog will be a champion runner, musher and league advocate Pam Laker said. “My best bloodline dog never made it as a runner.”
She’ll take enthusiasm and joy over good blood any day.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.
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