Commemorating Balto – A Canine Legend

The exact date is unknown, but somewhere during the year 1919, a jet black Siberian husky pup opened his eyes to get a first glimpse of the world. Balto was born in Nome, Alaska, where he spent the early part of his life as part of a dog team that transported supplies to miners in the surrounding area. Little did anyone know that this “scrub dog,” would one day have a statue in New York’s Central Park to commemorate his heroics.

Tough break – Lucky break
His owner Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian sled racer, considered Balto a slow-working dog and not fit for breeding. He was neutered at six months of age and assigned to work for a mining company on the freighting teams.

On January 21, 1925, a group of Inuit children in Nome were diagnosed with diphtheria, a disease that can lead to heart failure or paralysis. The only serum was 674 miles away, and it was decided that the fastest and most reliable manner to transport it was by using a relay of dog sled teams. Lucky for the sick children, Balto was included in one of the teams.

The serum run
Soon after Balto’s team set off on the last leg of the relay, a blinding blizzard began, plunging temperatures to -50 degrees Celsius with howling wind gusts. Gunnar Kassen, the team racer, found himself unable to navigate and almost gave up all hope of making it to Nome in time. Balto led the team in almost entire darkness, saving their lives on numerous occasions. When the team finally arrived in Nome, Kassen, overwhelmed from the ordeal, stumbled up to the front of the team and collapsed, muttering “Damn fine dog”.

Balto appeared on the front cover of newspapers all over the world, and shortly thereafter in the Hollywood movie “Balto and the Race to Nome”. Kassen took Balto and the team on a nationwide tour, which concluded with the unveiling of a bronze sculpture of Balto in New York City’s Central Park on December 17, 1925. To this day, it is New York’s only statue commemorating a dog!

Balto was sold and eventually became a star attraction at the Cleveland Zoo, until he passed away in 1933 at age 14. His legend lives on with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race that has been run from Anchorage to Nome every year since 1973 in commemoration of the dog teams that saved so many lives.

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