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Sled dog could have been removed from race before dying: Yukon Quest vet

The death of a sled dog named Boppy in this year's Yukon Quest race has put a spotlight on the system used to monitor the health and safety of animals.

'No system is perfect. So we do our best,' says Dr. Nina Hansen

Dr. Nina Hansen says musher Hugh Neff's dog Boppy checked out OK at a pre-race physical exam in February. But by the time Neff's team reached the Eagle checkpoint, Boppy had 'lost a significant amount of weight.' (Yukon Quest )

The head veterinarian with the Yukon Quest sled dog race admits a mistake may have been made this year in allowing a dangerously unhealthy dog to keep running.

The dog named Boppy  died during the race in February after having been checked by vets at the start of the race, and at a checkpoint along the way. Boppy's musher, Hugh Neff, has been barred from next year's race because officials saw a "lack of dog care." 

A necropsy on Boppy found the dog died from aspiration pneumonia, after inhaling its own vomit. The necropsy also found Boppy was in poor health, with a worm infestation, stomach ulcers, severe weight loss and muscle wasting. 

According to Dr. Nina Hansen, the Quest's head vet, Boppy checked out OK at a pre-race physical exam. But by the time Neff's team reached the Eagle checkpoint, Boppy "was noted to have lost a significant amount of weight," Hansen said.

When asked if Boppy should have been removed from the race at the Eagle checkpoint, Hansen said, "potentially, yes." 

"I was not in Eagle, and I can't speak for the vets in Eagle. I did not see Boppy in Eagle ... I can't promise that, had I seen him, I would have recommended his removal," she said.

"But based on what was written in his vet book, there's a chance that he, yeah, maybe should have been removed from the race."

Dogs wait for the start of the 2018 Yukon Quest in Fairbanks, Alaska, in February. (Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/Associated Press)

Still, Hansen stands by the Quest's system for assessing and monitoring the health and safety of dogs — even if mistakes are made.

"No system is perfect. So we do our best, and we do occasionally remove dogs, against mushers' wishes. It doesn't happen very often, but it has happened," she said.

Neff plans to appeal

Meanwhile, Neff has said he'll appeal the Yukon Quest's decision to bar him from next year's race.

"There is two sides to every story," Neff wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. "We will be showing ours soon."

Hugh Neff talks with the media after winning the 1,600-kilometre Yukon Quest sled dog race in 2016. Quest officials have barred him from competing next year. (Erin Corneliussen/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/Associated Press)

"Not a day goes by that we don't miss the Bopinator. He was a special boy who will always be in our hearts," Neff wrote. 

Neff has not responded to messages from CBC News.

The veteran musher from Tok, Alaska, has competed in the annual sled dog race 17 times and won it twice, in 2012 and 2016.

Race officials decided that he must compete in the qualifying YQ300 (482-kilometre) race before again entering the longer, 1,600-kilometre race. The earliest he could enter the YQ300 is 2020.

"We will be filing an appeal within the next few weeks," Neff wrote on Facebook.

Not an appeal process, race officials say

It's not clear who Neff will be appealing to.

He has 30 days to request a hearing with Yukon Quest officials, but the chair of the race's rules committee, Kathleen McGill, previously told CBC News it's not an appeal process. She said it's to allow Neff to hear "what our thinking is."

The dispute has attracted attention from some animal rights activists.

A statement on Tuesday from People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for a lifetime ban on Neff competing in the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod, and all other dog sled races.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesters at the ceremonial start of the 2018 Iditarod, in Anchorage, Alaska, in March. (Associated Press)

"This poor dog's intestines were inflamed, his skeletal muscles were dying, and his muscles were wasting away, yet Hugh Neff forced him to pull a sled until he inhaled his own vomit and died of pneumonia," PETA's executive vice-president Tracy Reiman said in the statement.

PETA activists have been outspoken against sled dog racing, and have staged protests against the Iditarod in Alaska.

Iditarod officials watching 

Iditarod officials are closely watching what happens with Neff and the Yukon Quest.

Neff, who is based in Tok, Alaska, has competed in the Iditarod 13 times, and as of 2017, had won a total of $166,370 in prize money over the years.

His best race was in 2011, when he placed fifth and won $35,600. This year, he finished in 21st place.

"We are going through the fact-gathering stage," said Chas St. George, chief operations officer for the Iditarod trail committee. "We're trying to get as much information as we can." 

Neff passes through the Takotna checkpoint without stopping to rest during the 2014 Iditarod. He's competed in the Iditarod 13 times over the years, winning thousands of dollars along the way. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/Bob Hallinen)

St. George couldn't say whether Neff might also be barred from the Iditarod, but said sled dog care is a major concern, and anybody involved in the Iditarod must respect that.  

"They have to live up to the standards that we have, and of course, we respect the standards that the Yukon Quest has," St. George said.  

He said the Iditarod committee will wait until after Neff has a hearing with Quest officials to decide whether to take action.

"The board feels that it's important that that process occurs, so that we have all of the facts to make an informed decision," he said.

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