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Iditarod

Yukon Quest bans 2-time champ from 2019 race after examination of dead dog

Hugh Neff (Bill Roth / ADN)

NOTE: This story has been updated with information from a Facebook post by Hugh Neff.

Yukon Quest organizers have banned two-time champion Hugh Neff from the 2019 race after a necropsy on his dog revealed just how sick the animal was when it died during this year's competition.

The medical exam showed that Neff's dog, named Boppy, suffered from stomach ulcers, a whipworm infestation and severe weight loss, among other health problems, the Yukon Quest said in a statement Tuesday.

"This dog was already in a low-body state, if you will, trying just to keep itself alive without even running a race," said Kathleen McGill, a veterinarian and the chair of the Quest's rules committee.

Neff, 50, is a longtime musher who has a sled dog kennel in Tok and who regularly competes in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, both annual 1,000-mile races.

It's unusual for race officials to punish a musher for a dog death on the trail. But in this case, McGill said, a medical examination on 5-year-old Boppy's body showed the dog suffered from some health problems that Neff could have prevented.

"These are not things that just happened in the race," McGill said.

Neff did not return to messages Tuesday or Wednesday. However, in a Facebook post Wednesday morning he wrote that there are two sides to every story.

"We will be showing ours soon," he wrote. "Not a day goes by that we don't miss the "Bopinator." He was a special boy who will always be in our hearts. God Bless our dawgs, Bless Alaska and especially the Yukon Quest."

Neff dropped out of this year's Yukon Quest in February after Boppy died while the team was on its way to Dawson City, the halfway point of the race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.

In news articles earlier this year, Neff mourned the dog's death.

"He was a special dog," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner soon after he scratched from the Quest. "He meant a lot to us, and he was one of my main leaders. He was one of my wife's favorites. I don't know. Sometimes you wonder what we're doing out here. Is it really worth all the anguish we sometimes have to go through?"

The medical examination on Boppy's body indicated the dog died from aspiration pneumonia, caused by inhaling vomit, which can happen unexpectedly to the best-cared-for sled dogs, McGill said.

However, on top of that, the exam showed that Boppy had mild stomach ulcers, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis and severe weight loss, according to the Quest's statement. The dog's muscles had started to waste away, it said.

McGill said those results indicate Boppy was likely not on the proper schedule for deworming medication. Neff told race officials he had not given the dog medicine to prevent stomach ulcers, McGill said. She said mushers are strongly urged to use that medicine.

She said Boppy also lacked fat around its internal organs, including its heart.

"It's really hard for an animal to use up all of its body fat around its heart and its kidneys," she said. "Maybe the feeding schedule wasn't appropriate, maybe conditioning wasn't as good as it should have been prior to the race."

Quest head veterinarian Nina Hansen told KUAC, the public radio station in Fairbanks, that Boppy should not have continued down the trail beyond Eagle, the last checkpoint before it died.

"It was a failure on the vet team, and I'm going to admit that," she told the radio station. "That dog was looked at in Eagle, and it was recorded to have a poor body condition. And that was not brought to my attention. It is noted in the vet book. I had left Eagle before Hugh got there so that is something I need to evaluate on the vet team as well."

The Anchorage Daily News could not reach Hansen on Tuesday.

McGill said the seven-member rules committee, which she chairs, reviewed the full findings from Boppy's necropsy and unanimously agreed that Neff should not be permitted to sign up for next year's 1,000-mile and 300-mile Yukon Quest.

The committee forwarded its recommendation to the race's board, which agreed, she said.

"Someone has to speak for the dogs and that comes down to the veterinarians and in this case, the rules committee," McGill said.

"This is a new day and age, I think, of just doing what all the other big public races with a public following and social media do — the Tour de France, the gymnasts on the Olympic Committee — you can't hide these things," she said.

McGill said if Neff wants to run the 1,000-mile Quest again, after 2019, he will have to first compete in the 300-mile race. He will also have to submit test results to prove his dogs are not infected with worms and attend a vet check before the race.

"We just don't want him running the Quest until things get better," McGill said. "He's been racing a long time. It's not like this was a rookie running."

Neff has 30 days to request in writing an informal hearing with Quest organizers, she said.

McGill said race officials have alerted the other 2018 Yukon Quest mushers as well as the communities the race passed through about the presence of whipworms on the trail, urging them to talk to a veterinarian about deworming protocols.

"It became a public health issue," she said.

Since 2000, Neff has started 18 1,000-mile Yukon Quest races, finishing 14 of them and placing first twice, in 2016 and 2012.

He has competed in 14 Iditarod races, placing 21st this year.

Chas St. George, an Iditarod spokesman, said he learned Tuesday that Neff was banned from the 2019 Quest. He said the Iditarod did not immediately have comment.

In a statement Tuesday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for the Quest and Iditarod to ban Neff from the races for life.

PETA has long protested the Iditarod, saying it's cruel to dogs. But its calls for the end of the race loudened this year, in part fueled by the Iditarod's announcement that dogs on four-time champion Dallas Seavey's team tested positive for tramadol, a prescription drug the race prohibits. Seavey has denied giving the drug to his dogs.

McGill said that based on her 15-year involvement with the Quest, she does not believe Boppy's condition is indicative of a widespread issue with sled dog care.

"I think 99.9 percent of all the mushers treat their dogs like family and do a really good job of it," she said. "And I'm not saying Hugh is a bad musher either, but in this situation with this dog, it raised enough concern that we felt we had to do something."

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