Two Rivers musher Richie Beattie said he thought his 5-year-old sled dog named Oshi was just tired on Thursday on the way to the Iditarod finish line in Nome. Two days later, Oshi died.
“We’re devastated,” Beattie said in an interview on Monday. "Losing her is no different than losing a family member.”
Oshi’s death was the only sled dog death of the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Under a new Iditarod rule, Beattie was withdrawn from the race. That means he will not receive any prize money, including the winnings for being the first rookie to make it to Nome.
Beattie, 45, said he would have dropped out of the race before Nome if he had any indication the dog was sick.
“I thought she was just getting pooped,” he said.
Here’s what he said happened:
Oshi led the entire Iditarod race, up until a few hours from the finish line, Beattie said.
“She did it phenomenally,” he said. “I was just singing her praises out loud to her.”
Beattie and his dog team pulled into White Mountain at 2:57 a.m. Thursday and left after their mandatory eight-hour rest. During that stop, Beattie said, veterinarians checked his dogs and flagged no issues with Oshi.
Oshi’s nickname is Yo-Yo, he said, because she bounced up and down when it was time to go. She did that in White Mountain, he said, before their 77-mile push to Nome. Everything seemed normal as the team blew through the next checkpoint at Safety, 22 miles from the finish line, he said.
Then, not too far out of Safety, Oshi started to look tired, Beattie said. He said he didn’t notice any labored breathing or vomiting. Her gait just seemed off.
“She wasn’t working with the same enthusiasm that she normally works with,” he said. “So as soon as I noticed that something was off, Oshi got a ride in the sled bag.”
That’s what he does any time a dog looks tired, he said. The remaining eight dogs pulled the sled to the finish line. They got to Nome at 10:01 p.m. Thursday.
Beattie said he unloaded Oshi from the sled bag and briefly hooked her up to the rest of the team so he could do his mandatory gear check. Then she was taken away on a leash to get examined by Iditarod veterinarians, he said.
During post-race checkups, veterinarians noticed Oshi showing signs of pneumonia, said a statement from Iditarod race officials on Saturday. Oshi was taken to a local animal hospital in Nome, Beattie said.
“That’s where they started oxygen and antibiotics,” he said. “Early the next day we chartered a private plane to get her to Anchorage.”
Beattie said he carried Oshi to the plane and that’s the last time he saw her alive. His wife flew to Anchorage to be with Oshi, he said.
Oshi died at an Anchorage animal hospital at 6:37 p.m. Saturday, said the Iditarod statement. The dog died from aspiration pneumonia, according to a preliminary diagnosis. Aspiration pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by inhaling foreign material such as vomit.
A necropsy will be conducted to determine the dog’s official cause of death, race officials said.
“I would gladly give up anything to have her back,” Beattie said.
Beattie and his wife have about 25 sled dogs in Two Rivers in Interior Alaska. This is his first Iditarod, but he’s competed in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race twice before, winning rookie of the year in that race in 2006.
Beattie is the first musher to be withdrawn from the Iditarod under a new rule that the Iditarod governing board adopted in June 2018. The rule says that mushers who have a dog die during the Iditarod will be out of the race that year, unless the death was due to an “unpreventable hazard” such as a moose encounter. If a musher is withdrawn, it “does not imply any deliberate misconduct,” the rule says.
Also according to Iditarod rules, dogs are under the jurisdiction of the race marshal from the time they enter the Iditarod race staging area at the start “until 72 hours after they have been released by (Iditarod Trail Committee) veterinarians or 48 hours after the final musher finishes.”
Beattie said he doesn’t think there’s anything he could have done to avoid what happened to Oshi.
“My conscience is fully clear that I take great care of my dogs, they mean the world to me," he said. “They weren’t overworked.”
He said he feels like the new rule is not entirely fair, but he also said he knew the rules when he signed up for the Iditarod and accepts them.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has long been a vocal critic of the Iditarod. The animal-rights group issued a statement Sunday blaming the race for Oshi’s death.
“Oshi was just like any family’s dog, but the Iditarod forced her to run until she choked to death on her own vomit, just like so many dogs before her,” said the statement from PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.