MUSHING: Life as a sled dog


(c) 1996 Copyright
(c) 1996 Scripps-McClatchy Western

Missoula Missoulian
MISSOULA, Mont. (Feb 9, 1996 - 07:35 EST) -- Andy Cross takes his job as chief veterinarian for Montana's Race to the Sky sled dog marathon very seriously.
But the veterinarian is serving in an official capacity in the race for the third straight year mainly because he enjoys the sport. The hardy mushers, their highly conditioned dogs and the bond they share have earned his respect and admiration.

Cross, who practices at the Missoula (Mont.) Veterinary Clinic, also has a "satellite office" in Seeley Lake.

"There are quite a few mushers in the Seeley Lake area," he said. "I'd seen the animals they use and I was intrigued by how athletic the dogs are. That piqued my interest and that's how I got started in it.

"Once I jumped on a sled and rode one, it was incredible. Those dogs have a lot of power. We consider them professional athletes."

Besides the Race to the Sky, Cross also has worked at numerous smaller races in Montana, and last year he served on the veterinary staff at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota.

The Beargrease and Race to the Sky are the two biggest sled dog races in the lower 48 states, and two of the "Big 3" in the United States, counting Alaska's prestigious Iditarod.

"I'd love to work the Iditarod," said Cross. "But it's a three-to-four-week commitment, and I have a family that's more important than that."

Cross is a member of an organization -- International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association -- formed in 1993 that is dedicated to the welfare of sled dogs.

"Vets had worked at all the big races in the past," he said. "But nothing was standardized. The organization was formed to give (the races) credibility."

Three primary goals of the ISDVMA are:

-- To ensure that the dogs are well cared for,

-- To educate mushers and dog handlers about care of their dogs,

-- And to inform and educate the public about the sport of mushing.

"A lot of people don't look on the sport favorably," said Cross. "So we want to show the public these dogs are well cared for.

"We take our jobs in mushing very seriously. We have the authority to stop a musher in a race. We could pull an individual dog or an entire team. We can disqualify a team if we feel it's necessary. We're not policemen, but we want to work with the mushers."

The heavy weight of responsibility on race veterinarians is matched by a hectic work schedule.

Before every race, all mushers are required to present their teams to the vets for a thorough physical examination of each dog to determine their fitness to compete.

"If there's any animal we don't feel is ready, we can ask that that dog not go out," Cross said. "There are usually 16 dogs per team, so it's a big chore."

This year's Race to the Sky, for instance, includes two separate races, one of 500 miles and one covering 300 miles. Twenty to 25 teams are expected to enter the two races. That could mean as many as 400 dogs will have to be evaluated by vets in the pre-race physical examination.

And the exams must all be done Friday, the day before the start of the race in Helena.

Fortunately, Cross will be assisted in the task by a staff of four veterinarians who will work under his supervision throughout the race. In addition, several Helena veterinarians have donated their time to help with the pre-race check-in.

"We may have six to eight vets for the check-in," said Cross. "We'll get it done in six to eight hours. But it's all done outside. Last year, it was 20 or 30 degrees below zero, with the wind blowing. I mean, it was cold. Your stethoscope was frozen to your ear. But it's an important part of the race."

At last year's Beargrease race, Cross says, about 750 dogs were involved in several races associated with the event. Cross was part of a staff of 16 veterinarians that handled the check-in exams.

Once the race starts, the vets' job shifts to care of dogs on the trail, and the wear and tear it can inflict on the animals.

"We don't physically go on the trail with the teams," said Cross. Cross. "I wish we could. We go to the check points that are 50 to 75 miles apart. There's always at least one of us at each check point to monitor the dogs. And there's a mandatory layover where we'll have a chance to check them out."

The health and treatment of the dogs on the trail during a grueling marathon race has come under criticism by some animal rights groups in recent years, which makes the job of official race veterinarians all the more crucial, says Cross.

"Animal rights people keep a close eye on all races," he said. "But the Race to the Sky is a well-run race. It's a very low-key race. The mushers I've seen here are more concerned with their dogs than they are on winning. We've had very little problems."

Cross says there's one sure sign of healthy, properly treated dogs during a race.

"One thing we really check at the check points is the attitude of the dogs," he said. "Dogs that are really well-cared-for are ready to get back out on the trail. They can't get enough of it. They're pulling and straining and barking and howling to get back out there.

"There's a bond between mushers and dogs that's incredible. These people really care for their dogs."

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