Vandals wreak havoc at Nome sled dog lots
Fifty-nine sled dogs housed at a communal dog yard in Nome were turned loose by unknown persons in the early morning hours of Saturday, August 25.
Huskies from three different kennels were untethered from their chains, causing a scene of chaos and confusion. As a result, one dog, a female named Star, has died from injuries it sustained from being bitten by other dogs, seven dogs were injured to various degrees and one dog is still missing.
Mike Owens, an Iditarod finisher and member of the Iditarod board of directors, is the owner of Star. He said he was alerted to the situation on Saturday morning when a colleague from work, Dr. Sam Covington, called him and reported that there were dogs loose all over the dog lot. “Mike, he said, you have not one dog on the chain,” reported Owens. A dozen huskies were circling Covington’s vehicle and others were milling around the area. Other sled dog owners were on scene already when Owens arrived and they began catching dogs and tethering them to any spot as they caught them.
It was mayhem, Owens said.
“First we needed to secure the dogs before figuring out whose dogs they are and where they belong,” said Owens. They then took a count and figured out that six were missing from the Owens team, two from Janet Balice’s team and eight to 10 from Chrystie Salesky’s team. While people were making sure dogs were getting secured to their spots, others fanned out to look for missing dogs. The scene was described as chaotic. Dogs milled around. Injured dogs were limping, obviously hurt from dogfights. “The grass and the area of fireweeds around the yard was completely trampled and destroyed,” described Janet Balice, who keeps her eight sled dogs at the Owens’ dog lot. Every single dog from the Owens, Balice and Chrystie Salesky’s dog yard had been unchained, suggesting that the deed was done with a purpose, in the middle of the dark and rainy night. Even a female in heat that had been kept in a fenced-in heat pen was taken out of the pen and unchained. “We ended up with an unwanted breeding,” Owens said.
Owens found one of his sled dogs hiding in the house, severely injured. “Just ten minutes before the jet came, we found my last dog,” Owens said. “She was in her dog house, severely injured and I know she had to get emergency care.” The dog didn’t make that noon jet out of Nome, but was airlifted out on the evening jet to receive emergency care in Anchorage. “She died the next morning of massive injuries,” Owens said.
According to dog owner Janet Balice, she talked with a person who camps at the city’s campground located on Greg Kruschek Avenue at the snow dump facility. He reported hearing an unbelievably loud sound coming from the direction of the dog yard, less than mile away as the crow flies, around 4 a.m. Saturday morning. According to the City of Nome’s Animal Control Officer Dawn Ubelaker, calls to Nome Police Department started coming in at 4:57 a.m. of loose dogs near the AC store and at one point even three dogs inside the store. Reports came in that huskies were all over the place. Ubelaker picked one up on the way to the scene, police officer Justin Stein had already rounded up four and brought them to security to the animal control facility. “When I got there, there were dogs all over the place and we clipped them to [dog] houses as fast as we could catch them. It was clear that some of them were injured,” Ubelaker said. She then left the dog yard to search for the missing huskies. The searchers found three in Icy View, one near the Monofill, and one near the Nome-Beltz High School. She also found several running up and down Bering Street between AC and Hansons. “They were really scared and obviously confused,” she said. One dog she found near the hospital, laying down on the tundra. “I worried that he was injured or would run off, because no 300 yards behind him was a herd of musk oxen,” Ubelaker said. She tromped onto the tundra, he patiently waited and then accompanied her to his owner Janet Balice.
Another dog team at the communal dog lot, located higher up and further away from Little Creek road, is owned by the Trowbridge family and was left untouched.
Deb Trowbridge said that when she learned dogs were let loose in the dog yard shortly after 8:00 a.m, she went right to the dog yard to assist with the situation. “There were six or more people present in the dog yard who where putting loose dogs back in their places. 59 dogs were let loose. I spent the rest of the morning searching for missing dogs. I located one near the hospital. By 1:30 one dog remained missing,” she reported.
By that time the mushers were going about the task to assess the injuries.
Janet Balice reported that one of her dogs was so bruised that she could not move for a day. “She just stood there stock still,” Balice described. Owens reported seven dogs with puncture wounds and bruises.
The only clue left after the mayhem was a torn Dorito bag. “None of us here at the dog yard leave Dorito bags laying around,” Balice said.
“I cannot imagine what would have spurred this on,” said Owens. “I have never heard of such a thing in my 35 years of being in Nome and having dogs.” He said that whoever has done this has no regard for the animals’ lives and while it ended badly, it could’ve ended worse. Roads, the highway and the nearby runway of the Nome airport could’ve been the scenes for accidents, hazardous to both dogs and people. “This was a reckless and dangerous thing to do,” said Owens.
Chrystie Salesky keeps 27 sled dogs at the lot and the only missing dog is from her yard. It is a five-year-old black and white husky with brown eyes, called Revan.
She said the effort it takes to turn this many dogs loose in the middle of the night is quite significant. “It had to have been multiple persons,” said Salesky. While some speculate that it may have been animal rights activists, Salesky said, “It is a heartless act and people don’t realize the heart and care that goes into caring for our sled dogs.”
According to the dog owners and handlers, there have been no threats made to the dog lot.
Who is investigating?
Nome Police Chief John Papasodora told the Nome Nugget that they have no suspects. He said that based on information from a security camera of one of the dog lot owners, fuzzy footage shows that around 3 a.m. there were several people entering the dog yard and leaving soon thereafter. One and a half hours later, NPD dispatch began receiving reports of loose dogs. After the initial chaos had settled and things calmed down, dog owners Chrystie Salesky, Janet Balice and Mike Owens made reports to the police. As of Tuesday morning, according to them, there had been no police officer contacting them to follow up on the matter. Also, there was no mention of the incident in the weekly Seawall report that is published in this paper.
Chief Papasodora told the Nugget, “As leads come in we will investigate.”
So far there are no leads or identified suspects. Except for the Dorito bag, which was not collected as evidence.
Balice first asked for a police officer to respond after the dogs were accounted for except for Salesky’s one husky. NPD responded by sending Animal Control Officer Dawn Ubelaker. When Balice then went to the police station in person to ask for a police officer. Balice said, the dispatcher was reluctant to connect her to an officer. “He then told me, yeah, given that this is an Iditarod town and that there were a bunch of dogs loose, let’s see if I can get you somebody.” Balice was then able to have a conversation with Officer Le but the investigation has not progressed since.
Balice decided to camp out that night at the dog lot. “I decided to sleep in the front seat of my truck, just keeping an eye on my dog that was so bruised.” She said that night police officers came by to patrol the area more frequently. She also summed up what others involved stated, saying that the Animal Control Officer Ubelaker was awesome in her response to the incident.
Ubelaker is also facilitating the collection of money for a reward that would lead to the prosecution of suspects.
Asked what state laws were violated, Assistant District Attorney Tom Jamgochian responded that possibly AS 11.46.486(a)(1) and AS11.41.250 were violated, which relates to criminal mischief 5 and reckless endangerment. If the veterinarian bills and the value of the dead dog would exceed $750, suspects could also be charged with felony criminal mischief.
The Nome Kennel Club issued a statement on Tuesday. It reads, “The Nome Kennel Club sincerely regrets hearing of the trespass incident at the sled dog lots this past Saturday. This is a very disturbing and disappointing occurrence, as the dog lots have been in this location for at least 15 years with no problems before.
It’s unimaginable that someone would do such a reckless and potentially dangerous thing.
We regret the loss of life of one of the dogs, the injuries to others, and the fact that one remains missing. We are sincerely grateful that no people were physically injured as a result of the irresponsibility shown by others.
We encourage anyone with knowledge of this incident to contact Nome Police.”