It’s been a nice run for a racing sled dog named Wildfire and the Eden Prairie animal hospital that put him back in the game.
Wildfire was part of a team of dogs that helped musher Sarah Keefer of Burnsville finish third in the 2023 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon from Jan. 29-31. Keefer was also the first woman to cross the finish line in Grand Portage, Minn., after completing the event of more than 300 miles.
Meanwhile, news stories detailing how Wildfire has overcome great odds thanks to Mission Animal Hospital have given the local nonprofit a year of acclaim.
“I would say Wildfire is Mission’s most famous patient, to date anyway,” says Christine Durand, the animal hospital’s director of development.
The Beargrease finish last week was another milestone on the comeback trail for Wildfire, an Alaskan husky who has endured three surgeries and rigorous rehabilitation after his left rear leg was broken in three places during a devastating hit-and-run collision with a snowmobile a little over a year ago.
Ryan Redington, Keefer’s partner on the Redington Mushing racing team, was training near Brule, Wis., on Jan. 8, 2022, when a snowmobile sped toward him, careened into Redington’s team of sled dogs, and zoomed away. Wildfire, at the time one of the kennel’s young rock stars, was part of Redington’s sled dog team that day. (The accident is recounted in this Jan. 12, 2022, story by Eden Prairie Local News.)
Wildfire was hurt the most, and while there was help nearby, and an emergency visit to a veterinarian in Duluth, advanced surgery was urged. Mission Animal Hospital was recommended for the work, and a fortuitous opening in Mission’s surgery schedule led the mushing team to Eden Prairie and to Dr. Heather Hadley, one of two board-certified veterinary surgeons on the hospital’s team of veterinarians.
Hadley used three stainless steel plates and 26 screws to reconstruct Wildfire’s femur and tibia, then generously agreed to provide her family’s home for Wildfire’s rest and recuperation while Redington headed to Alaska to finish the racing season.
Hadley returned the dog to Redington Mushing in the spring. A few months later, she removed two of the plates and the screws holding them after Wildfire’s leg began bothering him. By November, his training had increased from yards to miles.
Wildfire’s surgery, rehab, and return to racing have shone a bright spotlight on Mission Animal Hospital, which is unique in its approach to veterinary care in a country where, annually, 1-in-3 pets need emergency care. Its nonprofit model uses philanthropy to provide pet care without the usual financial roadblocks. “We do that with a state-of-the-art hospital,” says Durand.
To accomplish its mission, the hospital has a two-tiered pricing schedule based on income. Durand said 84% of the pets served are from low-income families that pay reduced prices. Donations to Mission Animal Hospital from supporters help fill the gap.
“Wildfire became part of our family, and I will forever cherish our special bond. He has taught us so much about resilience, determination, hope, and love.”Dr. Heather Hadley
Photo courtesy of Scruff Life Photography
It is a model that has worked for Mission Animal Hospital. It started as a small, for-profit business but transitioned to a nonprofit in 2014. In 2015 it had 10,000 pet visits. That has grown to 25,000 pet visits from about 6,500 families last year, according to Durand.
Along the way, its facility at 10100 Viking Drive in Eden Prairie has expanded to 12,000 square feet, and its staff has also grown to the current 16 veterinarians.
And, the organization could be scaling upward in a big way. The nonprofit’s goal is to build a Mission Animal Hospital in every major metropolitan area in the United States by 2050, according to its website.
Wildlife’s story, and others like it, might be a big help in that regard. Durand and Hadley say news accounts nationwide have increased awareness of and financial support for Mission Animal Hospital, including many people donating for the first time after hearing about the sled dog.
Wildfire also played the part of runway model at the hospital’s Raise the Woof (& Meow) gala last September, said Durand. Featuring him and his mushers helped Mission Animal Hospital raise $330,000 at that event.
Importantly, adds Hadley, “clients that may not have otherwise known about us are bringing their pets through our doors and they are receiving the care that they need.”
Hadley, who has been at Mission Animal Hospital for nearly five years, says there have been both personal and professional rewards from the relationship with Wildfire.
“On a personal level, Wildfire became part of our family, and I will forever cherish our special bond,” she says. “He has taught us so much about resilience, determination, hope, and love.
“He has led us to new friendships – not only with Sarah and Ryan of Redington Mushing, but with other mushers, dog handlers, and sled-dog racing fans. He has been the impetus for new experiences – taking a bucket list trip to Alaska and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the sport of mushing as a ‘handler’ for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
“Professionally,” adds Hadley, “he has provided me with new insight to pass along to my clients – tips and tricks to get through even the most challenging of recoveries.
“Wildfire’s story has also created inspiration within the field of medicine,” she adds. “Pet owners and even other humans that have suffered traumatic injury are getting a first-hand look at what can be achieved with the right team and dedication of the mind, body, and spirit.”
Wildfire may still have a steel plate 4 or 5 inches long in his leg, but Hadley says the prognosis for continued success in racing is very good.
She has a favorite quote that is posted on her home office wall. It is credited to Mark Twain and says: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
“That ‘why’ is what brought about this beautiful experience,” says Hadley. “I was born to help pets and their people, and Wildfire was born to run!”
Editor’s note: Mark Weber has a family member who is a volunteer for Mission Animal Hospital. He is also a member of the EPLN Board of Directors.
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