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Wiljes, Quest Musher, Loses Sled Dog to Aspiration

Portrait of brown-haired woman wearing black blouse and dark brown sweater.
Yukon Quest 2019 competitor Misha Wiljes. Photo: Whitney McLaren, Yukon Quest; used with permission.

While some teams of the Yukon Quest have already arrived in Fairbanks with teams of happy, healthy dogs, that isn’t the case for everyone. According to a Yukon Quest press release, Misha Wiljes arrived into Central checkpoint Monday night carrying a deceased dog. Results from a preliminary necropsy cite aspiration as the dog’s cause of death.

Joker, a five-year-old male dog on Wiljes’ team, died about three miles outside of the checkpoint. Wiljes rode into Central with his body riding in her sled. As per race rules, he was immediately sent to necropsy.

According to Race Manager Pixie Ingram, the death of a dog doesn’t necessarily have race penalties for a musher.

“Generally, there isn’t a penalty if it was deemed out of the musher’s control… if there was no mismanagement of the dog or anything like that.”  

Head Race Veterinarian Dr. Nina Hansen’s preliminary results were announced in a Yukon Quest press release Tuesday afternoon; Dr. Hansen did not detect any signs of neglect or abuse. Aspiration happens when the dog’s lungs fill with a foreign liquid, like vomit. Dr. Hansen said that in Joker’s case, he had inhaled his own vomit and that what happened to Joker isn’t predictable. Final results of the necropsy are expected to be completed within a month, according to the media release.

Quest race rules state that “mushers are responsible for the health and welfare of their dogs” and that they must always be within a “few minutes” of their dogs. The only exception is at Dawson City. Dogs are to be examined by veterinarians at every mandatory checkpoint on the Quest. Dr. Hansen explained the breakdown in examinations:

“They have a pre-race physical exam, like your pet would have if you brought your pet to the vet. At Braeburn Lodge, at Dawson, at Eagle, and at Two Rivers, they all get a complete physical exam. And at the rest of the checkpoints, the veterinarians are there doing at least a visual inspection of the dog and often checking their body conditions and hydration.”

This isn’t the first dog to expire on the Yukon Quest trail recently.  Two-time champion Hugh Neff was barred from competing in the 2019 Quest after his dog, Boppy, died last year. In 2017, Yuka Honda had a dog die of heart failure, causing Honda to decide to drop from the race.

For now, Ingram does not say as to whether dog deaths are becoming a trend for the Quest but offers that the race does re-evaluate its policies annually:

“The rules committee reviews the rules every year and makes changes as needed based on feedback from the finishers club and feedback from the organization itself, and then, they present recommendations to changes to the rules.”

Misha Wiljes of the Czech Republic has continued back on the trail. As of mid-day Wednesday (Feb. 13), the GPS tracker shows her on the way to checkpoint Mile 101. She is currently in 21st position.

Brent Sass finished the race in Fairbanks Monday at 12:40pm with a full team of fourteen dogs. This is his second win. So far, thirteen out of the remaining 27 teams have finished Yukon Quest 2019. 

Image at top: Yukon Quest 2019 competitor Misha Wiljes. Photo: Whitney McLaren, Yukon Quest; used with permission.

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