Name:Harrison Location:United States

The Original Lovable Little Fuzzball

Here's the straight stuff.

The adventures of Harrison are true.
Try a few of his Crunchy Bites for a taste.
--Alpha Human Mom

Thursday, September 29, 2005

National Dog Week - IV

The Dog Who Inspired the Iditarod.

Balto"January 20, 1925 was a desperate day for the town of Nome, Alaska. Several cases of diptheria had just been diagnosed, and no antitoxin serum was available with which to treat the town's children. The only hope of avoiding a full-blown epidemic was to receive a shipment of serum from one of Alaska's cities from the south.

"But in the depths of winter, Nome was only accessible by dogsled. Balto was the lead dog of the final sled team that raced through hurricane-force winds and minus-50-degree temperatures to bring serum to the diphtheria stricken town."

Most of ya' know the Disneyfication of Balto. Just in case you were wonderin', no, he was not part wolf, and sure didn't need to find his "inner wolf" to complete the 1925 Serum Run from Nenana to Nome. In fact, the Disney studios probably got their information from the original Balto movie, a 20 minute short produced by Sol Lesser.

Balto & Gunnar"In Lesser's version, Balto not only saved the team from running into ice water on the serum run [true], he saved [Gunnar] Kaasen's life when the driver fell through the ice!

"According to Lesser, Balto wasn't Kaasen's first choice as leader -- or his second, third or even fourth choice! Balto was promoted to the lead position only after the team encountered a fierce blizzard and the lead dog -- unnamed in Lesser's press release -- "hesitated, then stopped."… "Balto literally dragged the exhausted and dispirited team until they staggered into the streets of Nome."

Never mentioned was the fact Balto & Co. were only one of a whole series of mushers who carried the serum, and, instead of carryin' it all the way, had only traveled 53 miles one way and 53 miles back, with a good long rest in between.

Balto did conquer snowdrifts and high winds for more than three black hours, arrivin' in Nome just before dawn to find everyone sleepin'. When the news spread that the serum had arrived, however, the town celebrated and Kaasen obligingly reenacted the sled team's entry for a French film crew.

Though Kaasen's mentor (and Balto's actual owner) Leonhard "Sepp" Seppala and his champion lead dog Togo had traveled farther through greater difficulties, Balto and Kaasen got to Nome first, and that was that as far as the public was concerned. Togo's contribution and those of the other mushers were ignored.

The hero-dog team and driver promptly went Hollywood, then, when the movie was done, onto the Vaudeville circuit. They arrived in NYC durin' the dog days of summer, 1925--pre air conditioned NYC. It was there the famous statue (still standin' in Central Park near 66th Street) was done and unveiled in December of that year.

Balto StatueWhat Disney left out was the next eight years of Balto's life. Within two years, only seven of the original 12-dog team was left (the others bein' sold off at various times) and the driver, Gunnar Kaasen, had vanished.

While Balto toured the country, baskin' in his fame, some promoters decided to bring Sepp and Togo to New York where, at Madison Square Garden, Roald Amundsen--the man who was first to reach the South Pole--would formally decorate Togo with a gold medal for his heroism in the serum run.

Amundsen would change Balto's life forever.

"Amundsen was set to board a train for New York, where he was to present Togo with his medal. On his way to the station, he stopped by the [Chicago] theater and followed Kaasen backstage after the show. The much younger Kaasen was understandably awed by his much more famous fellow countryman and listened carefully to what he had to say. Amundsen gently but firmly told Kaasen to go home to Nome, that it was time to get out of Seppala's way. Kaasen left the next morning, stranding the dogs and bringing the Vaudeville tour to a screeching halt."

No Kaasen, no show. Abandoned, Balto and his teammates were sold off to a man named Sam Houston who put 'em on display as sideshow curiosities.

"The converted store was a "dime museum," a cheap sideshow wedged among gambling dens, illegal drinking dives and other sleazy joints. For 10 cents, visitors -- mostly out-of-town businessmen -- could ogle an "animal curiosity'' -- seven famous Alaskan sled dogs. The dogs were Balto, Fox, Alaska Slim, Billy, Sye, Old Moctoc and Tillie, the only female."

Then Cleveland businessman George Kimble arrived. Appalled by the condition of the remainin' team, he enlisted the help of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and all the citizens of 1927 Cleveland, Ohio to raise money to rescue the abandoned dogs.

"Balto's fund took another leap towards its goal of $2,000 yesterday as children, invalids and employes of several companies, and workers in offices, public libraries, banks and the Museum of Natural History got behind the movement."

Ironically, even Roald Amundsen, whose big mouth had caused the problems in the first place, weighed in.

"Roald Amundsen, who was to speak in Cleveland on Friday, had sent a telegraph to the paper the previous day in support of the campaign… "Do what you can for these brave dogs and secure them a bright future. They certainly deserve it."

Yeah, right.

Anyway, the money poured in. Balto and his companions were shipped to a specially constructed dog yard at the Brookside Zoo where they lived out their lives baskin' in the adulation of thousands.

On March 14, 1933 Balto rejoined his team where we dogs all go to wait for our humans.

Balto's story, told by Patricia Chargot, can be read in its entirety here.

posted by Harrison at 9:38 PM


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