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Bandera vet sets off for Alaskan Iditarod

By Judith Pannebaker

Caring for animals is what Samantha K. Yeltatzie, DMV, does for a living; this year, she plans to do it during her upcoming “vacation,” too.

The Rockport native will serve as an official veterinarian for the 2008 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. For two weeks, beginning Monday, Feb. 25, through Monday, March 10, she’ll be stationed at checkpoints along the grueling 1,150-mile trail and provide medical attention and check ups to participating sled dogs.

“I particularly love working dogs - hunting dogs, herding dogs and, of course, sled dogs,” Yeltatzie said in an interview. “They have a drive and desire to work. When they’re not working, (these dogs) are not happy and that’s when behavior problems occur. But when they have a job to do, they’re happy doing it.”

Yeltatzie received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from New York’s Cornell University in 2005, which makes her something of an anomaly among the rest of the trail vets.

According to information on the Iditarod website, veterinarians usually must have a minimum of five years clinical practice experience prior to being selected to work the race.

“This was the first year that I applied to be a volunteer vet and I was accepted,” Yeltatzie said, adding, “I became interested in the Iditarod while I was in vet school, but they don’t take students.” She attributed her selection to her current practice in critical and emergency veterinary medicine in San Antonio’s I-10 Pet Emergencies. “It’s a new emergency pet care center and I work there evenings and on the weekends,” Yeltatzie said. “I love taking care of atypical cases, such as trauma and scorpion and rattlesnake bites, but I also miss seeing healthy animals.”

Yeltatzie is also a native Alaskan Haida Indian, a culture found in the southeast corner of the state. “I have a lot of family in Alaska and have visited occasionally, but never before in winter,” she said.

Described as “the last great race on earth,” the Iditarod begins in Anchorage in south central Alaska, and ends in Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. Each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their mushers take from 10 to 17 days to cover the distance. The race route roughly equals the distance between Los Angeles and Denver or from New York City to Memphis.

Now a National Historic Trail, the Iditarod Trail began as a mail and supply route from coastal towns to interior mining camps and west coast communities. Dog sleds took mail and supplies in and brought gold out. In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a life-saving route for epidemic-stricken Nome. When diphtheria threatened, mushers and their sled dogs delivered the needed serum. However, this historic run was comprised of relay teams, most of which covered less than 100 miles each.
In 1995, Universal Pictures released an animated film, “Balto,” that commemorated the Siberian Husky that led a team of huskies on the final leg of the journey.

As a rookie Iditarod veterinarian, Yeltatzie must pay her own travel expenses, food and accommodations during the two weeks she’ll be in Alaska. “This is strictly a volunteer position. I’m going up for the love of the dogs and the sport,” she said. Prior to the race, she will attend a three-day orientation seminar. When the race begins, Yeltatzie will be stationed at different stops along the trail.

“We’ll do pre-race screenings and health checks on each dog. In addition, every dog must have screenings at each of the more than 30 checkpoints,” Yeltatzie said. She added, “Every musher is required to carry a diary of each of his dog’s health screenings.”

On the official website, Stuart Nelson Jr., DVM wrote, “Long-distance sled dog races, such as the Iditarod, require mushers to finish with only those dogs who started the race. Although none may be added to the team after the start, dogs can be dropped at any checkpoint and for any reason. A maximum of 16 dogs may start in an Iditarod team, and at least five are required to be in harness for an official finish.”

“I’m very excited to be doing this. I’ve always been a big fan of the Iditarod and love new adventures,” Yeltatzie said. “This is the perfect opportunity for me to give something back and try something new at the same time.”

She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M - Kingsville in 2001. Yeltatzie is married to J. Garrett Young, and the couple has two working dogs - a yellow lab and a Hungarian Vizsla.

The Iditarod can be tracked on www.Iditarod.com. In addition, the race will be available on the satellite channel Versus.