Jailed avalanche crossers were desperate to get sick cat to vet

Lee Revis
A helicopter surveys the lake that has submerged the Richardson Highway Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 outside Valdez. Snow slides covering the highway have dammed the Lowe River, complicating efforts to clear the road.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
Ninja the cat perches on Kristina Clark on Monday in Valdez. Clark and Donney Carlson, left, were arrested Saturday for walking through the Richardson Highway avalanche blasting zone in a bid to get Ninja critical medical care in Valdez.
Robert Dunning, Valdez District Superintendent of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities inspects avalanche debris in Keystone Canyon Tuesday, January 28, 2014.
Jason Sakalaskas
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities did an overflight of the avalanches in Keystone Canyon to monitor the situation Monday January 27, 2014.

VALDEZ -- Is Kristina Clark crazy, or just crazy about her cat?

It depends on whom you ask.

The 22-year-old Copper Center woman was arrested by an Alaska state trooper Saturday after walking over two avalanches that were blocking traffic on the Richardson Highway -- all in a desperate bid to get her cat needed medical care in Valdez.

Clark and her companion, Donney Carlson, 20, spent Saturday night in jail after trooper Tony Beck arrested them on misdemeanor complaints alleging disorderly conduct and obstruction of highways. Valdez police took the humans to jail and the cat to the Valdez Animal Shelter.

A judge freed the two on an unsecured bond Sunday, but it was Dr. Kelly Hawkins of Valdez Veterinary Clinic who saved Ninja.

"That cat wouldn't have made it much longer," Hawkins said in an interview Monday.

Clark's first call from jail was not to home asking for bail money. She called the vet instead.

"I was floored," Hawkins said after hearing how the three made it to Valdez. "I have to commend them for doing something to get their cat help."

Alaska Department of Transportation and law enforcement officials in Valdez saw it a little differently. Identical charging documents supporting the arrest of Clark and Carlson say the two were advised by DOT personnel along the highway that they should turn back and that dangerous avalanche mitigation work was shut down because the pair refused to stop their walk to Valdez.

"DOT contacted me, and I advised them to tell the two people they are working under the authority of the Alaska State Troopers, and they were to turn around and head back to Glennallen," Beck wrote in the complaint filed in a Valdez court. "They were also advised a second time the road was impassable."

Clark and Carlson do not deny that DOT workers told them to turn around. Both say they were told they could be taken to Valdez by helicopter but they would have to talk to the troopers if they accepted. Both claim they had no idea they would be arrested if they got on the helicopter. They both thought "talk to the troopers" literally meant talking, not getting put in the pokey.

"We didn't know we were going to get arrested," Carlson said Monday before the pair made a visit to Ninja, who was resting at the vet's office, recuperating from a lifesaving procedure that included a catheter and a flushing of his urinary tract.

"They didn't care about Ninja at all," Carlson said.

Clark was cash-strapped but determined to save her cat. She said she knew that the road to Valdez had been closed, but veterinary clinics in Mat-Su and Anchorage wanted hundreds of dollars upfront before treating the cat. The doctors at Valdez Veterinary Clinic said they would try to help -- if she could get Ninja to Valdez.

"We had to do something and that was the only option," Clark said.

She claims she'd called Valdez police dispatch at least twice before attempting to come to Valdez and was advised that avalanches were indeed blocking the highway.

"They said if you want to go climbing, we can't stop you," Clark said Monday.

Apparently, it was in fact hard to stop the two cat lovers, who say Ninja was fine Saturday morning.

"He was fine in the morning and just started going downhill all day," Clark said.

They tried treating Ninja at home, but his condition began to deteriorate.

"We tried the home remedy thing," Carlson said, but without desired results. "He'd try to pee and he'd cry."

The pair managed to drive all the way from Copper Center (about 100 miles north of Valdez) to Mile 42 before encountering the first avalanche that made travel by car impossible. They swaddled Ninja in a blanket, put him in a backpack and began walking.

"I made sure I parked in a pullout," Clark said, not wanting to block the road for DOT avalanche crews.

That was at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

"We climbed the first and second avalanches and then the loader came," Carlson said. "They told us to just keep walking."

The unidentified operator of the loader called the Valdez trooper office.

The pair were several miles north of the larger avalanche near Mile 16 that was not only covering the highway but damming portions of the Lowe River.

Charging documents say the troopers were first notified that the pair were on the highway at 3 p.m. and were picked up by the DOT helicopter at 3:20. It was five-minute ride to Pioneer Field in Valdez, where the duo was met on the ground by Beck and Valdez police.

"It was worth it for Ninja," Clark said.

As for the cat, Hawkins said he was recovering nicely but not yet out of the woods, so to speak.

"This cat's doing very well," he said in an interview Monday from the clinic's office, but said Ninja will remain in the clinic's hospital for several days.

"The urethra can replug," he said. "Then we have to do the whole thing over again."

Hawkins said Ninja's infection is usually caused by diets high in magnesium content, which is why it is important to feed cats a diet that pet food manufacturers refer to as "low ash."

Magnesium flakes build up in the cat's urinary tract, making it impossible for the cat to urinate. The fluid then backs up into the cat's kidneys and without treatment, it will die.

Hawkins, who runs the clinic with his veterinarian wife, Katherine Hawkins, said the veterinary practice has a small fund it falls back on for cases like Ninja.

The "Honey Bear Fund," as it is called, was started by Cliff Eames and Ruth McHenry in honor of their golden retriever, Honey Bear. It helps defray a small amount of the costs the clinic incurs when treating animals whose owners can't afford to pay upfront.

"We have a lot of people who donate little bits here and there," Hawkins said. "Anything helps."

Most donations are in the $5 to $20 range.

Hawkins said the average cost to treat Ninja's condition runs between $800 and $1,000, much more than is typically in the Honey Bear Fund.

"Within reason, we'll do what we can," he said.


By Lee Revis
Valdez Star