Veteran Vets: what keeps them coming back

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Veterinarian Mercedes Pinto said some of her fellow veterinarians think it’s crazy that she takes time off work every year to sleep in cars, work outside in 10 to 50 below, and sometimes give physical exams to 200 dogs without having time for a pee break.

But Pinto, who works for an Alaska veterinary hospital, said volunteering for the Yukon Quest makes her happy.

“Most of what I do is illness,” she said, explaining that delivering somber news to pet owners is part of her job.

“I come here and I see hundreds of dogs that are happy and healthy and cared for and excited,” she said noting that injuries along the Yukon Quest are usually minor. “It’s just wonderful. I love it, this whole thing.”

Pinto has been volunteering with the Yukon Quest for seven years. She is one of about 20 veterinary professionals and students who are helping care for the sled dogs in this year’s 1000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the 300-mile YQ300.

The team gives the sled dogs an initial check to make sure they are healthy and fit enough to compete in the race. The veterinarians and assistants then follow the mushers through different checkpoints along the race trail where the mushers bring their teams in for inspection.

“We visit with the mushers as they come in and ask if they have any concerns with their animals. We then we do physical exams on all of them,” said veterinarian Molly Murphy. “We check their vital signs, their heart, and their lungs to make sure that they’re healthy. We make sure that their joints are in good shape and look at their feet to make sure they don’t have any cuts or splits.”

This year alone the vets are caring for more than 500 dogs and 2,000 paws.

Murphy is helping with the Alaska leg of the race. She said she volunteered to experience the adventure of it all.

“I just think it’s amazing that you can mobilize a thousand people and all their stuff and all their animals and just make this happen,” she said.

Murphy found out about the race from her coworker and office neighbor, Yukon Quest head veterinarian Nina Hansen. Murphy teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Hansen is a postdoctoral fellow there. After practicing veterinary medicine, Hansen returned to college to get her doctorate degree so she could pursue veterinary research.

She started as a volunteer at the Yukon Quest nine years ago and then became the Head Veterinarian four years ago. Every summer, she recruits a team of volunteers, but said most of her volunteers come back because the rewards are many.

“We get to go to some really neat places. We get to work with amazing athletes and meet amazing people at all these checkpoints,” she said.

She said an added personal benefit is that she gets to celebrate her birthday, Feb. 12, every year with the Yukon Quest family.

She remembers one year in particular when the then Race Marshal walked up to her with a very gruff look.

“I was kind of scared that I did something wrong or made him mad,” she said. “He said ‘Happy Birthday’ and he gave me a big hug. Then he gave me a giant cinnamon roll with a candle in it.”

Most of the areas along the trail are pretty remote, so finding a large cinnamon roll is quite an accomplishment, she added.

This year, Hansen only needed to recruit one new veterinarian and Martin Randle answered the call. Originally from England, he moved to Canada and became fascinated with the Yukon Quest acquainted him with it.

“The course is unbelievable beautiful - the geography,” he said. “Dealing with the dogs is exciting because they’re really tip-top athletes. The mushers are a friendly lot and knowledgeable. There’s a feeling of it being a big occasion and it’s nice to be part of it.”