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Lightning: A Birthday Present

by Victor J. DiSanto, Ph.D. - email Musher_Vic@hotmail.com

    I was not looking for another dog when I walked into the Mohawk Hudson Animal Shelter on my 43rd birthday. I already owned a 3 year old male Alaskan Malamute I had purchased as a pup and an 8 year old female Samoyed I had adopted from Mohawk Hudson 4 years before. My cat had disappeared a year before when I lived in Lake Placid, and I thought it was time to replace her. My move from Lake Placid back to Albany had ended my dream of putting together a large sled dog team. Until I saw what had to be the mangiest and most malnourished Siberian Husky on the planet earth. The twelve month old named "Shadow" was filthy, he was full of fleas, his infected ears bled, he had worms, his ribs and tail bones protruded through his dirty and bloody coat. Yet he had laughing eyes and a sweet disposition. I took him for a walk as I pondered our future. In spite of all he had already been through during his short life, he still maintained the typical will, spirit, and character of the Northern family of dogs.

Lightning the Sierian husky     I left the shelter without a cat or a dog. An Iditarod veteran with many more miles under his sled than I ever will aspire to, told me it would never work. Malamutes are generally more aggressive and dominant than their smaller Siberian cousins, and I was warned the pairing of two young males together at this point in their lives would lead to constant battles -- "Vic -- itís the animal kingdom, only one dog can be number one."

    Screw it, I decided. Nobody is going to take him in this shape. Iíll clean him up and find a home for him. I returned to the shelter, and adopted the dog. That was 4 years ago.

    As expected, Thunder, my Malamute initially had some reservations, and during the first day, twice charged the Husky, and I had to insert myself into the fray to keep the peace. Snowball, the Samoyed acted less aggressively yet did bare her teeth to show some contempt a few times. Yet the next morning the Malamute greeted the Siberian by putting his chest to the ground and raised his butt up in the air, dog language for "Letís Play!" The smaller dog responded, and I have not had a fight since.

    With one hurdle overcome, the next step was to get him some medical attention. Even the staff at the vet's was alarmed by his deplorable condition. I had tried to clean this poor dog as much as possible but he was so dirty I decided a bath at my vet's was the only answer. To this day, I donít know how he got so dirty. Arctic dogs are generally clean animals, and despite their long coats fairly easy to keep clean. "Must have spent most of his life on a short leash without much food or water" was the consensus at the animal hospital. He had not been a stray. The frightened dog thought he was being abandoned again, and crawled up into a scared and depressed ball when I left there. But I knew he was in good hands.

'Musher Vic' with his mixed team     Later that day I returned to pick him up. The Siberian played with his new best friend Thunder as the vet explained to me what various treatments he needed for his various problems, a cone shaped collar to prevent him from doing further damage to his ears, flea control products, medicine for his ears and worms. You would have thought the two sled dogs had been raised together as puppies by their cheerful behavior at this reunion.

    I believed a name change was necessary as the next order of business, and since the Sibe had already become the Malís sidekick Shadow became Lightning. The dog healed, put on weight, and flourished.

    Less than a year later I adopted a seven month old female Samoyed named Casey at the Hudson Mohawk Shelter. The following winter I was invited to do a presentation on mushing to a group of third graders studying the Iditarod. The children were a captive audience as I spoke to them about the role the sled dog has played in history, from Inuit legends to arctic expeditions to the gold rush to their finest hour, the 1925 Diphtheria Serum Run. But I also explained how the breed characteristics and exercise needs of the Northern dogs prevent them from being the right fit for everybodyís personality and lifestyle, so they often end up abandoned or even abused and neglected, like Lightning was. I explain how for the right people, the Northern breeds are great canine companions, and use my team as an example of a second chance club. This breed education program has grown tremendously the last three years, and I now visit several schools and winterfests on an annual basis. Snowball is still alive but is not interested in pulling much anymore, and her place on the team is now occupied by Luna, a friendís rescued Siberian. The children always promise me they will take care of their pets, and be kind to all animals, thus winning permission to pet my dogs and ride in the basket of my dogsled.

    Lightning is now something of a media star. There are not too many mushers in the Albany area, and my team is something of a novelty. We have been on television twice and in various local newspapers eleven times. Once considered the worldís most mangy husky, Lightning is now admired and loved by many. And hopefully his story has influenced many a child to take a lesson about responsible pet ownership to heart.

Below, Lightning & Thunder charm a group of students.

Siberian huskies with school students