Sunday, August 26, 2012

Letter to an Anonymous Animal Rights Activist

Today was National Dog Day and Elise and I celebrated by taking Miles (pictured here) on a long hike in the woods. All of the dogs here at the Ranch always get daily free runs and treats after their meals, but I try to do a little extra something with each of them every day - especially during the time of year when we aren't training regularly.

Sadly,  for the first time in the kennel's history, I also sold three dogs this weekend.

Mind you, this is the first time in seven years of being involved in this sport that I have decided to part with an adult racing dog this way. In fact, six years ago when I initially started into this sport, I said I would never sell any dog - that all of my adult dogs would live - and die - on my land.

I was idealistic and naive.

Unfortunately, no one can foresee the changes they are forced to make until they happen. And sometimes we have to do what we must do to survive.

Interestingly enough, I received a scathing email from an animal rights person criticizing me for "shuffling dogs around," because I recently posted some dogs for sale on an internet forum.

I wish I could write this person a letter. But since I cannot - theirs was anonymously sent - I thought I would write a letter to them here.

To the animal rights activist who sent me an email: 

I saw you once picketing outside of a fur shop. You had kind, smiling eyes, and I admired your courage, standing there that cold day in October with a handful of other activists. Cars drove by without noticing your signs or hearing your chants - and yet, you held fast to your lonely vigil in the hopes that somehow, you could reach just one person with your message, save one animal's life.

And I understand your message - more than you give me credit for. For years I refused to wear leather and was almost vegan (I couldn't quite give up cheese). I loathed the process by which animals were factory-farmed - harvested for food, clothing.

But the fact is, we will not bridge the gap between "us and them" by filling our hearts with hatred and sealing ourselves off from those we disagree with. The only way to successfully tackle the problems we see in society is by calmly, rationally engaging in dialogue with those who our opinions differ from. 

I no longer despise leather. I wear a parka in the winter lined with coyote fur (thank you, Coyote, for my parka is the warmest piece of clothing I own). I am able to cross a divide to see things not in such harsh black and white terms, but to see so many beautiful shades of in between. Our country is divided in such stark lines of hatred at this point in history, isn't it better that we engage in peaceful discussions about our differences, no matter what they might be?

I imagine you expected me to react angrily to some of your accusations. If I am honest, I admit, you did piss me off initially, but not for reasons you might think. Here's why:

Had you taken five minutes to investigate my kennel, the animals who live here, or even me personally, you would know you have attacked the wrong person. 

I would tell you about the runt puppy I stayed up through the night feeding for three weeks with a medicine dropper to save her life. She lives at the Ranch now - a happy and healthy 2 1/2 year old dog.

I would tell you about Sasha the malamute who I took into my home because she had been diagnosed with hip dysplasia and her family was simply going to put her down and trade her in for a cute little Lhasa Apso puppy (no doubt, from a puppy mill).

I would tell you about Gracie the little black cocker spaniel/lab mix I pulled from a high-kill animal shelter after seeing her picture on the web site for three straight months. Anyone whose works in animal rescue for any amount of time can tell you black animals - both dogs and cats - stand a slim chance of escaping the pound alive. Thin and terrified, with the whites of her eyes constantly showing in a look of startled terror and surprise, it took a full year for sweet Gracie to relax in my home. She is sleeping at my feet as I type.

I would tell you about the dog I rescued who was pregnant with inbred puppies with disabilities - how I spent my entire savings for that seasons races on countless trips to the emergency vet clinic at all hours right before Christmas (no doubt, whittling down my children's Christmas present money as well) trying to save those puppies' lives. And how one died in my arms while I tried unsuccessfully to give it CPR. And about the one I literally spoon fed in a custom built high chair because he was born with a condition called megaesophagus and how I had to force him to stay in that high chair for 20 minutes after each feeding...four feedings a day.

I value each one of my dogs' lives as individual, beautiful and sacred. So you can keep your harsh, generalized judgments of me and my kennel to yourself.

I suppose in your mind I should keep all of the dogs forever even though my life is changing. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I also value my own life as beautiful and sacred. I have been without steady employment for the last four years. And now, as I embark on a journey into the unknown without my husband of eleven years, sadly, life changes have forced me to part with some really great dogs and friends.

Let's be honest. Keeping dogs is not always in the best interest of the dogs. So do I hold onto them selfishly? Or allow them to flourish in new homes where they can be adequately cared for with families who love them?

The answer, in my opinion, is clear.

Now I ask you, who is the cruel one?

As always, even for you, my friend, the Animal Activist -

Friday, August 24, 2012

Let the madness commence! The 2012/2013 team

This is the first season ever in my seventh season of running dogs in Ohio that I've been able to start four-wheeler fall training in AUGUST! This is great because I still had the yearlings from Tak's litter last July to totally harness break (get used to learning their job as sled dogs). 

In four short months we have to go from this...

Harness breaking puppies the other evening. Yearlings Perry and Tosh are in the middle there, with their papa, Yeti, taking up the wheel this

My team on the beginning of the second leg of the Midnight Run last year.
We have many miles to get under our harnesses before our first race in January. I am super stoked for this season!

New members to the team this season are the yearlings from the Reggae Litter, who are now all officially harness broken, thanks to Mother Nature's cool temperatures earlier this week. I am in the process of selling some of my females in order to move from running almost primarily females to primarily males this season. Here are some of the boys.

Meet Perry, the biggest and so far the superstar of the Reggae litter. With six hook ups since last April, he's already rockin' in harness as if he's been running in the team for years and years. Perry is named after the Reggae dub great, Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Perry giving me his best "I'm sexy and I know it" look
Returning older yearling (who will be two in November) is rockstar, educational doggy, and the kennel's 2011/2012 MVP: Miles.

Miles, who, despite his intimidating and bulging muscles, is the sweetest and most patient education dog for my dog sledding presentations. He finished the Midnight Run as a yearling last February.
Perry's brother and Elise's sled dog (who she says I can race) is Tosh.

Tosh, who also masquerades as an arctic fox

Despite popular belief, Tosh is NOT named after Comedy Central's funny (and often unsavory) show, Tosh.0. He is one of the Reggae Litter, and was named after reggae master and original core member of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh. His name is fitting, too, because he is laid back as any Rastafarian.

Perry and Tosh's brother, Wailer, was a bit more challenging to capture a photo of, even for me. He does not stop moving! Here is Wailer...clearly named after Bob Marley and the Wailers. His name was apropos for him from birth, however, because he had the loudest mouth of all the Reggae litter!

Here is the proud papa of the Reggae litter...cornerstone of my kennel and the most natural leader, Yeti.


And, leading the pack, the dynamic duo...the sisterhood of the traveling fur pants.... leaders in crime, Ruffian and Big Brown.

Big Brown


All of the pedigrees of these dogs can be found here: 

Here's to the 2012/2013 season - I'm hopeful it will be a season of big changes for Team Diamond Dogs!

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I recently had a conversation with someone about why it is I do what I do.

"What's your end goal?" he asked, honestly curious about where the hell I hoped to end up on this crazy dog ride.

I assume he expected me to say the Iditarod was my end goal. And while that might be someday, it isn't really a goal for anytime in the near future for a number of reasons.

"But what skills does dog mushing teach?" he asked. "You spend so much money and time and have sacrificed so much to do this. You get up early in the freezing cold, and go outside to deal with chaos. I can think of a million other things I'd rather do on a cold morning. I guess I just don't get it."

And that's just it. Running dogs is one sport where people either get it, or they don't. And when I try to formulate the words for why I do it, I admit I fall short.

So I asked two of my best friends, who also run dogs, why we do what we do. Their answers?

"I do it because I like doing it."

And the other? "No clue."

It really is difficult to formulate words for what this experience means.

Nothing stirs me in such a deep and primal way or brings me joy like being on a sled behind a team of huskies working together. I spend hours and hours with my 12 racing dogs; we run hundreds of miles before our first race.

What do we learn in those many hours? Here's what I've come up with.

Patience. I've written about this before, but hooking up a bunch of high-energy, impressionable dogs who look to you for leadership but also want nothing more than to run takes a lot of patience. They're boneheads. And they do a lot of crap that boneheads do, but in dog ways. Like chewing lines, harnesses, arguing, being distracted. ...which leads to my next point...

Meeting a challenge. It can be super difficult to remain calm and patient in the face of the chaos that running dogs can be. My job is to teach them focus, determination and grit. And my job is to remain calm, look out for them, and maintain my own focus, determination and grit - even when tired, hungry, and cold. ...which leads to my next point...

Dealing with adversity. Most of the time, runs almost always go okay. But quite often, there are unforeseen challenges during training runs and races. A dog gets sick or injured. Your last harness is chewed to shreds. You're down to five dogs in an eight dog race. One of your dogs gets loose during a race...and she's in heat. You're tired, hungry, and cold...

You just never know. One of our jobs as mushers is to be prepared for as many unknown variables as possible. But there's never any way to know every possible scenario that could happen. Mushing teaches coping with adverse conditions.

Discipline. Training hundreds of miles on a dog team between September 1 and January 1 takes a lot of dedication and discipline. There is no time for drama or laziness.

I can't think of any other way I'd love to practice these life skills than while mushing. Some people take martial arts to learn these things. For others, maybe it's distance running.

Whatever you do, do it to the fullest extent and embrace it with all of your heart. To me there's no other way.

Fall training officially has kicked off for me on September 1. But tonight, the temperatures are so mild, I'm thinking we might just have our first hook up this evening. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Adventures are funny things. They offer dark, uncertain times, forks in the road, and choices between comfort and peril. And in such times, heroes can be made or undone."

The dogs and I are about to set off on an adventure. 

We set off on adventures every time we go on a run. But this is a different kind of adventure.  

A few weeks ago, when I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my most excellent friend Emily Wade, we began planning. Scheming. Plotting.  

Whenever two mushers get together, there is inevitable "dog talk" - discussions of all things dog: diet, training routines, race plans, stories from the past. But aside from the normal dog talk, Emily and I began discussing seriously joining forces this season and becoming kennel partners. 

Emily has 13 racing Alaskan huskies, and I have 12. There are advantages to partnering up - especially for small kennels. If one of our dogs is injured, we can borrow a dog from the other. We will travel the same racing circuits together this season, cutting down on costs because we will share expenses. 

But how will we do this if she is in Skandia, Michigan and I am in Diamond, Ohio? 

Ah, dear reader. You are sharp. I can't pull anything over on you. 

The short answer is: the dogs and I are moving to da U.P.

Thanks to Emily, while I was in the U.P., I connected with a guy who owns a cabin in Chatham, about twenty or so minutes from where Emily is staying. He had used it only as a snowmobile haven, and was casually looking for a renter. He works in construction, and was completely renovating this little cabin.  He has access to fork lifts and backhoes and other heavy machinery and has offered to put a connector trail right off of the cabin onto some of the best dog training trails in the U.P. He's even willing to leave a snow machine for me to break trails with in the snow. 

I certainly hope that this fork in the road doesn't lead to peril. I don't have all the answers, but I have faith in the direction. I am excited, but also scared with a fear I haven't felt in a long time.

But I have learned that when the first few steps of something feel daunting and scary, this is even more reason to embark on those first few steps.

As always 


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Upper Peninsula dog transfer and beautiful weekend

The days are just beginning to get noticeably shorter as August slips into focus. This summer has been a sweltering mess, and fall can't come fast enough for the huskies or me!

But, I had a bit of a reprieve from the incessant heat and humidity of an Ohio summer last weekend when I traversed up to Paradise, Michigan to take my Siberian, Jack, to his new home. On a long stretch of quiet road that meanders along the Lake Superior shoreline sits the modest cabin of Cheanne Chellis and her partner, wilderness writer Len McDougall.

Several years ago, while training at another local musher's cabin, I tried in vain to find Cheanne, aka "the wolf lady." She has two wolves who live on her property in a huge enclosure. Well, this time, there was no mistake. I found Cheanne and her wolves...or rather, one found me. He practically goosed me - something I am told is a compliment in wolf speak.

Goosed by a wolf. Leave it to me to wear a mini-skirt to meet a wolf
The wolves not only allowed me into their enclosure, they didn't spook when I shot a few photos of them.

Look at the feet!
The trip to Cheanne and Len's was bittersweet, for I was bringing them my six year old Siberian, Jack. You can read his story here.  I'd had Jack since he was 10 weeks old, but because he couldn't keep up with the rest of my team, had decided recently to rehome him to a recreational mushing and pet home.

Jack took to the place right away. Cheanne and Len have several recreational or retired Alaskan huskies and Jack is very friendly, so I knew he would have a ball getting to know everyone. We first gave Jack a chance to get to know his own kennel and Cheanne.

Jack and Cheanne

Then he was reintroduced to a Seppela Siberian, Willie, who he'd met back in 2009 at the home of my good friends Joann and Larry Fortier. Willie had been pulled from a local shelter and Joann kept him until he found his forever home at Cheanne's.

Willie (left) and Jack (right) have the same bi-eyes

Len and Cheanne with some of their recreational sled dogs. The center of the enclosure is open so the dogs can mingle and play with each other.

Leaving Jack was difficult. But I know he's in a better place where he can get more one-on-one attention.

Today I heard from Cheanne. She said, "Jackie boy is doing great. Spoiled. Last night during the storm Len brought him in cause he was crying (I was sleeping). He has warmed right up to me and Len. This morning he jumped right up on my bed and rolled over for a belly rub then he did a bit of free running with the others. He was a well-behaved boy."

After leaving Paradise, I headed west to visit with some friends and trek around some of my favorite places in the Upper Peninsula. The temperatures were awesome and the weather gorgeous. 

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising, MI

Miners' Falls, Munising, MI

Boats beside a small harbor outside of Munising, MI

My great friend, Emily Wade and I had a chance to do some yakkin' on Lake Superior - something I've always wanted to do! It was quite choppy and a little cloudy when we went out, but still so beautiful. 

Emily yakkin' it up on the great Superior!
Five days in the great north woods is never enough for me. Now that I am back in Ohio, I am anxious for cooler temperatures and fall training to start. It will be here before I know it!  

A few weeks ago, I wrote my "official plans" for the season, fearing admittedly that they would change. They already have! In fact, I'm not even going to breathe a word about the plans, except to say I will be teaming up with Emily and the fabulous dogs of Powderhounds Racing! 

Stay tuned, and as always...