Who, age What Where Last known address When
Jerry Riley, 38 2 dogs died during Iditarod     1974
Jerry Riley, 44 2 dogs died during Iditarod     1980
Jerry Riley, 46 3 dogs died during Iditarod     1982
Martin Buser dog dies from a ruptured blood vessel   Big Lake, AK


Susan Butcher dog dies of a heart attack   Eureka, AK 1989
Jerry Riley, 54 sled dog killed with metal snowhook in a fight with another dog

Anchorage, AK

Anchorage Borough

  January, 1990
Type of Crime Other Crimes #/Type of animal(s) involved
    sled dogs

Iditarod officials say that Riley is too tough on his dogs and handed him their most severe punishment a lifetime ban. The Quest will honor the action of its sister race.

"We wish it hadn't come to this, but I think it had to happen for the good of the Iditarod," said Joe Redington Sr., of Knik, one of the 10 members of the Iditarod Trail Committee's board of directors. "And I think it's better for Jerry, too, to be out of it. He hasn't been doing too good lately and I think he takes it out on the dogs."

The incident that triggered the ban occurred late in this year's race. Iditarod officials said Riley failed to notify veterinarians that he dropped an injured dog at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line. Riley was disqualified for cruel and inhumane treatment of the dog after he reached Nome in 28th place.

Iditarod Chief Veterinarian Jack Morris of Wasilla said Riley violated Rule 30, which defines cruel and inhumane treatment as "any action or inaction which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog."

Inaction prompted Riley's disqualification. Morris said the dog's injuries were extensive enough that vets should have been notified.

The dog, Rocket, was hurt when Riley used a metal snowhook to break up a fight between Rocket and another dog in his team, according to the musher. Dogs can be maimed or killed in fights.

Riley said Rocket saw the hook out of the corner of his eye and snapped at it. The teeth broke when Riley yanked the hook away, he said. Riley said he hit Rocket on the neck not the head with the back of the hook trying to stop the fight, and did not think the dog needed immediate care.

Iditarod officials thought otherwise.  Rocket had four broken or chipped teeth and a large swollen area on the front portion of its head, according to race veterinarian Tom Cooley of Wisconsin, who examined Rocket at White Mountain.

"The dog appeared very apprehensive and scared," said Cooley, a three year veteran of the race. "It took a couple minutes until we were able to touch it because the dog was so scared."

Rocket was given anti inflammatory drugs and antibiotics and was flown to Nome in less than 24 hours with other dropped dogs.

"The dog obviously needed care," said Morris, who examined Rocket in Nome.

But Mark Festooned, a Nome schoolteacher and musher who has worked as a volunteer handler for Riley the last two years in Nome, said Rocket and the rest of Riley's team looked fine at the finish.

"The dog's mouth was sore, but to say the injury was bad enough to require immediate medical care . . . I don't know about that. To me, it was a judgment call," said Fuersteneau, who bought four dogs out of Riley's team and plans to race them next winter.

"It (the ban) almost sounds like a personal thing," said Riley, who placed second in the 1975 and 1977 Iditarods. He also placed second in the 1988 Yukon Quest.

The ban from Alaska's two richest races cripples Riley's racing career. The Iditarod purse is $250,000 and the Quest pays out $100,000 in prize money.

Quest President Mike Stancampiano said his race would honor Iditarod disciplinary actions against other mushers as well.

Iditarod Trail Committee President Leo Rasmussen of Nome said that this year's disqualification was enough to ban Riley for life.

But Riley's past has not been forgotten, and it, too, played a role in the decision to ban. Riley has had as many as three dogs die on the trail in one year, although none have died in the Iditarod since 1981.

The disqualification "was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back," said Iditarod Trail Committee Secretary Joanne Potts, who served as 1990 race coordinator but who does not have a vote on the board.

"It was the fact that the judges disqualified him this year and he had a past record," said musher Lavon Barve of Wasilla, a newly elected board member.

Riley was banned from the 1982 Iditarod because of three dead dogs in 1981.

Bob Sept, an Anchorage veterinarian and former chief trail vet, said that seven or eight Riley dogs have died in 11 Iditarod appearances. Riley said five dogs died.

The numbers are difficult to reconcile. Riley and Sept agree that three dogs died in 1981. But two other years, 1974 and 1980, are in dispute. Accurate records were not kept in 1974. Detailed records were kept beginning in 1980, said Sept, but the Iditarod office no longer has them on file, Potts said.

One of Riley's dogs died in the 1989 Yukon Quest, but officials did not accuse Riley of wrongdoing. Race veterinarians said the dog died of a congenital kidney condition.

Iditarod officials never publicly accused Riley of causing the deaths with abuse, but they said in 1982 that the pattern of deaths was reason enough to act.  "That's when things (relations) really started to get bad," said Riley.

In response, Riley unsuccessfully sued the Iditarod Trail Committee seeking $1.5 million in damages and the right to run in the race.  Race officials are still careful of what they say about Riley because they don't want another suit.

After his 1982 suspension, Riley didn't return to the Iditarod until 1986, when he finished 15th. He followed up with a 13th in 1987 and a 17th in 1989.

Any musher, no matter how experienced and caring, risks having an animal die in harness. Fourtime champ Susan Butcher of Eureka had a dog die of a heart attack last year. Perennial contender Martin Buser of Big Lake lost a dog to a ruptured blood vessel in 1989.

Riley said there was nothing he could have done to save the lives of his dogs that died.

Sept disagrees. Sept was the Iditarod's chief vet in 1981. One dog died of internal bleeding. The dog's kidney was ruptured by a blow to its abdomen, said Sept.  "He (Riley) didn't offer a satisfactory explanation," said Sept. "He said he didn't know how it happened."  Two other dogs died of heat stroke, which could have been prevented, Sept said.

Riley said he borrowed the dogs before the race and suspected that previous steroid use contributed to the deaths. But he offered no proof.

Dead dogs and mistreated dogs are the public relations nightmares of sleddog race organizers, and the Iditarod board felt a need to protect the image of the race.

Barve, who placed third this year, thought the ban was necessary.  "I think most of the mushers who are on the board that voted are looking to the future," said Barve. "We all know Jerry and considered him a friend. But this goes beyond friendship. We want the Iditarod to perpetuate itself and be a good, clean sport."

The vote to ban was unanimous by the board, a 10 member committee, half of whom are mushers. Barve, Redington, Dave Monson of Eureka, Herbie Nayokpuk of Shishmaref and Rick Swenson of Two Rivers are the mushers. The others are Howard Farley of Nome, Dr. Phil Meyer of Anchorage, Rich Owens of Anchorage and Jack Niggemyer of Palmer.

"This action will set the tone for dealing with all future mistreatment of dogs," said Rasmussen.  A clean image is critical for the financial health of sled dog racing.  "I think dog drivers are relieved that race rules are tightening up on incidents involving mistreated or lost (dead) dogs," said Stancampiano. "There's not a sponsor in the world that is going to underwrite an event that has dead dogs who died for preventable reasons."

The numbers of dead dogs have plummeted since the Iditarod began 18 years ago. Knowledge about racing dogs and a greatly improved network of veterinary care along the trail has helped.  Morris estimated that as many as 25 dogs used to die out of starting fields of about 600 or 700 in the first years of the race.

Sept said five dogs died this year out of the 1,100 or so starters. The toll includes death from congenital, or inborn, defects that go undetected.  An accurate count of deaths in the early years is impossible, said Sept, because there weren't enough vets or official checkers to handle the paperwork.

But the procedure for handling dogs that die during the race has been in place for more than a decade now. Bodies must be taken by the musher to a checkpoint, where a written report is turned over to a race official along with the body. All bodies are autopsied by an Iditarod veterinarian. The cost of all pathological tests are paid by the musher.

Riley learned of his ban from friends and news reporters. No official from the Iditarod or Quest ever contacted him, he said.  Although he has no plans for legal action, Riley would like to race in the Iditarod or the Quest again. "Oh yes, if someone could come up with a solution so that we could come out friends and resolve this thing, I'd like that," said Riley, who was born in a trapline cabin in 1936 and has run dogs most of his life. He said he'd continue to train a team. Thirty years of racing is not an easy thing to forget.  Nor, for race officials, is a mushing record that includes dead and injured animals.

"Of course, any action by a political group can be rescinded," Rasmussen said. "But at this juncture I'd say you're not looking at any immediate reconsideration.


Anchorage Daily News