ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An Iditarod musher whose sled dog suffocated in snow while awaiting transport from a checkpoint is pushing back against an animal rights group that says she and race volunteers should face charges for letting the dog die.
The group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also urged sponsors on Thursday to pull out of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Fairbanks musher Paige Drobny gave 4-year-old Dorado to race workers in Unalakleet on March 11 because he seemed stiff, she said. Drobny, an Iditarod rookie, mushed on to a 34th-place finish about 260 miles down the trail in Nome. A storm prevented airplanes from shuttling dropped dogs out of Unalakleet, and volunteers tied up the 30 or so dropped dogs left outside in a spot that would protect them from wind and snow slamming the coastal village, race officials said. The dogs looked fine during a 3 a.m. check March 15, but volunteers found eight dogs buried in snow by about 8:30 a.m., including Dorado, who was dead, the Iditarod officials said.
Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said the Iditarod Trail Committee is working on changes to how dropped dogs are handled at checkpoints. That includes building dog boxes for better shelter, more frequent checks of the dogs and scheduling extra flights to move them quicker, McLarnon said.
In a letter calling for animal cruelty charges, sent to Nome's district attorney and published on PETA's website, the group says Drobny left the dog outdoors and unattended and that Dorado had not been provided with appropriate shelter.
"It would appear that Drobny and any Iditarod organizers responsible for Dorado's safety can be directly blamed for this animal's horrific death," the letter says.
Drobny said she has received several threatening phone calls and hundreds of nasty emails from PETA supporters.
"We have not only had to deal with the death of our loved dog but also people wanting to blame me in his death, which has just been horrible to hear," Drobny told the Daily News via Facebook. "Did anyone want Dorado to die? Absolutely not! That's why we are trying to make positive changes to make sure that this doesn't happen again. That's all we can do."
Iditarod veteran and Bethel attorney Myron Angstman, now representing Drobny, demanded in his own letter that PETA retract its statement saying Drobny left the dog unattended. Drobny has been harassed because the group publicized incorrect information, Angstman said.
Angstman quoted some of the emails Drobny received:
"You make me sick," one said.
"There's a special place in hell for you," said another.
"You're ugly people."
The sport is so removed from outside distractions, an activity mostly for the mushers and the dogs, the bombardment of emails and calls caught Drobny by off guard, Angstman said.
"She's just astounded on all this focus on her, people wanting her to go to jail," Angstman said. "Obviously it's upset her. She has received a lot of support from people, I want to point that out. Including from people she doesn't know."
"She is not blaming anyone. She doesn't think anyone should be blamed for an accident," he said. "We can all improve lots of things, and sometimes it takes an event to get us to do that."
Angstman said he will sue PETA in a court in Nome -- founded by gold miners, many of whom were dog mushers -- if the group refuses to retract its earlier statement and fails to write Drobny a public apology.
Colleen O'Brien, PETA's director of communications, said Thursday by phone from Washington D.C. that she had not yet seen Angstman's letter. She stood by the group's call for charges against "those responsible" but did not mention Drobny by name. The Iditarod should have been better prepared and could have easily prevented Dorado's "slow and agonizing death," she said.
"It was pure negligence. It did not need to happen. He did not need to die. It was surely a terrifying, horrific way for him to die," O'Brien said.
As for the negative comments directed toward Drobny following PETA's publicizing of the dog's death, O'Brien said previous news reports had already mentioned the musher's name and that it was understandable that animal lovers would be upset. The animal rights group does not condone hateful messages, O'Brien said. She went on to describe what she called common injuries to sled dogs, including damage to paws from running on snow and ice, lung ailments and other sicknesses.
"That is not OK either," O'Brien said.
Nome District Attorney John Earthman said Thursday he has not made a decision on pursuing charges.
Earthman said he's also received about 350 emails about Dorado's death. The district attorney said he is reviewing the state's animal cruelty statutes and assessing if such a case would have a chance with a jury in Unalakleet. He said he could not speak about specifics related to the dog's death but talked in general about animal cruelty cases.
Proving animal cruelty means having to convince such a jury that a person's negligence was more than an accident and went outside what would normally be acceptable in the village, Earthman said.
"You're looking at things like is leaving a sled dog out in a storm a gross deviation from conduct in Western Alaska?" Earthman said. "I've been living here 13 years, and sled dogs generally spend the winter outside here in weather people from the Lower 48 simply wouldn't understand."
McLarnon, the Iditarod spokeswoman, said the Iditarod Trail Committee does not expect criminal charges. The race has an excellent record of caring for animals, McLarnon said. Race officials do not engage PETA in any kind of dialogue, she said.
"There was no cruelty involved, it was simply an accident. Just unfortunate, sad, and it still makes us sick to our stomachs," McLarnon said. "But there was no negligence involved in what happened to Dorado."