Two-time Yukon Quest winner Hugh Neff will not be eligible to enter a team in 2019 thanks to a censure from Yukon Quest after review of the final necropsy report of his dog, Boppy, who died during this year’s race.
Boppy died of aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomited stomach contents, a press release from the Quest said on April 24.
The release went on to reveal other findings, including “mild stomach ulcer, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, and severe weight loss and muscle wasting.”
Dr. Cristina Hansen, head veterinarian for the Yukon Quest, said there was “no question” that aspiration caused the death.
“All these other things would have contributed to his poor body condition. It’s evidence that he wasn’t very well cared for,” said Hansen.
Ulcers are known to occur in racing sled dogs, said Hansen, so mushers are encouraged to use anti-ulcer medication. It is unknown if the ulcers were present before the race.
Whipworms have a life cycle, said Hansen, so it is clear the infestation didn’t start during the race.
“For adult worms to be present in his intestines, they would have had to be there before the race,” said Hansen.
Dogs running the Quest are evaluated using the Nestlé Purina Body Conditioning System which ranks dogs one to nine, where one is far too thin and nine is obese.
“We like for sled dogs to be a four or a five when they start the race,” said Hansen. “That’s what Nestlé Purina calls ideal for a dog anyways.”
Hansen said that while some weight loss is expected during the race, muscle wasting is not.
“These were diagnosed under a microscope after his passing, so we don’t do that for every dog,” said Hansen. “But just based on our palpations of them and our body condition scores of them at the finish, this doesn’t happen with most dogs.”
Hansen told the News that Neff’s prerace vet checks were done by his own veterinarian, as is common for veteran mushers.
Kathleen McGill, chair of the Yukon Quest rules committee, said that Boppy would have been weighed at the prerace vet check, but that no one from the Quest would have weighed the dog.
Neff published a video to his social media on April 26 in response to the report, but did not reply to an interview request from the News. Alaskan media are reporting he said he is refusing to give interviews.
In the video, Neff said his immediate reaction to the censure is “sadness.”
“We’ve been through a lot and Boppy was a special boy to us, and still is,” said Neff. “It’s just sad that we’ve come to a state in dog mushing where it is not about trying to improve tough situtations, but where people are just trying to destroy people’s careers and lifestyles.”
Neff said he felt the Quest didn’t speak to the right people — those at 40 Mile where Boppy died — and that the Quest didn’t take the time to examine his kennel and dogs.
“They’re just going off of paperwork and their own feelings about what they see numbers-wise instead of interviewing me, interviewing the people where this happened,” said Neff. “This is just the way I see it, a personal vendetta that a few folks have against me and don’t want [me] to be a part of the Quest.”
McGill said that the decision to censure Neff was based solely on the necropsy report results.
“I think the facts stand for themselves,” said McGill. “I think the facts of the necropsy report are there, we posted that for everybody to see, so it’s not a personal vendetta — it’s the results of the necropsy report that was reviewed. It takes four to six weeks to get those reports.”
The process takes time, said McGill. After a discussion with the head veterinarian, it goes to the rules committee which in turn makes a recommendation to the board. The board then contacts the musher before the decision and necropsy report are made public.
“In this case, there were significant concerns and we went back and studied it and the supporting documents … and made our decision,” said McGill.
In his video statement, Neff said he intends to file a written submission to the Quest organization in protest.
“I don’t want to grovel and I will protest but I’m not going to go in front of a board of people that I know don’t like me and won’t respect my word to get them to try to change their minds,” said Neff. “I love dogs, I love travel and I love the freedom of the trail and the love of the dogs. But more than anything, I love the Quest. And that’s why I just don’t understand why they’re doing this to me, but I ain’t backing down. No way.”
McGill said it’s important to note the hearing is not an appeal.
“Things are not going to change, but we will listen and certainly we would listen to his whole side of it and keep it to what the facts are, and the facts are the necropsy report which points to a lack of conditioning in nutrition before and lack of nutrition during the race,” said McGill.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association examined necropsy findings from 23 sled dogs that died in the Iditarod between 1994 and 2006.
The study found that six of those dogs died after inhaling vomit and a further three died later from aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomit.
This is the second dog Neff has lost during the Quest. Geronimo died during the 2011 race.
Per the censure, in order for Neff to enter the 1,000 mile race again, he is required to complete the Yukon Quest 300 first.
Neff has 30 days from the date of censure to request in writing an informal hearing.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com