Veteran musher Matthew Failor has his spirit animal in his dog sled team. He calls her Cool Cat. At nine years old, he considers her the matriarch of his kennel. He’d even given her a friendly pre-race kiss in Willow. But Matthew had a story to tell KTVA News 11 about Cool Cat and he wasn’t finding it easy. Thanks to the reporter team, the entire details about Matthew’s incredible experience could be shared on TV and in print. Cool Cat was having a flawless Iditarod race when everything went bad quickly.
Matthew’s sled dog team, with lead dog Cool Cat, were taking their mandatory 24-hour rest early in the morning at the Takotna checkpoint when Matthew woke up from a nap. He’d gone outside to wake up his dogs. They were sleeping under blankets at the time. When Matthew hear Cool Cat whimpering, he realized that she wasn’t doing well. He was understandably concerned for her. Even though Cool Cat is a lead dog, she also sleeps in his bed at night. The two are undeniably close. He noticed that her was crying sounded like she was in pain. He’s used to her talking to him all the time, but this crying was different.
He also saw that she was dry heaving. He asked a volunteer veterinarian, Jason Heezon, of Plankinton, South Dakota to look at her. Heezon asked Matthew to get Cool Cat onto her feet and that’s when they noticed that her stomach was completely swollen. To their surprise, her stomach was swollen to the size of a beach ball. Not a good sign for a normally fit sled dog. The vet confirmed Matthew’s fear that Cool Cat had a twisted gut. She was dying, but the vet knew exactly what to do to help her. He told Matthew that they “needed to move quickly”.
Matthew was bravely telling this story for the news camera. He continued with a concerned look on his face growing ever more serious as the TV cameras captured his story. Matthew knew Cool Cat’s condition as twisted gut. He admitted to news reporters that Heezon had used “medical terminology that ‘he’ didn’t understand”. Later news reports would identify it as gastric dilation-volvulus. It’s a kind of bloating where the gasses build up in the stomach and create pressure which keep the heart from beating properly. Cool Cat’s heart was slowed by all the pressure.
Matthew, Heezon, and volunteers worked together to take Cool Cat inside. Matthew laid down onto the floor right next to Cool Cat while the veterinarians discussed what they could do to save her life. Matthew knew that they were without the facilities they needed, and they were in an Alaskan village-miles away from a hospital. Matthew had to depend on the staff at the Takotna checkpoint for creating a plan to help her.
The first thing staff did was find a pilot and scheduled a flight to the McGrath checkpoint to access a better emergency facility. The next thing that happened was hard for Matthew to watch. Heezon rolled Cool Cat over onto her side, applied some topical ointment and gave her a partial sedative. The veterinarians found the right place on her stomach and Heezen poked a hole there. Immediately, Matthew said that a hissing sound erupted from the hole and the gas started pouring out of her belly. Heezon had to buy her some time before they could get Cool Cat to the surgeon.
The next step was to get Cool Cat onto an airplane so they could get her into emergency surgery. Matthew carried Cool Cat to an otter sled which was attached to a snow machine. That was going to be their ride to the airport. Matthew wrapped her in a blanket because her body temperature was too low. Matthew and the vet drove “frantically” down the road toward the airport. The snow was flying everywhere, so the vet unzipped his coat and raised both arms wide open to protect both Matthew and Cool Cat from the blowing snow. Telling the story up to this point had been hard for Matthew.
At this point in Matthew’s narrative, he had to turn away from the cameras for a moment. He fought back tears and desperately tried to compose himself so that he could continue. Unable to speak for a moment, he apologized with a terse, “Sorry” to the camera crew. When he could finally speak, he said, “I thought she was dying in my hands.” He looked down and away from the camera, choking back the tears. When he could speak a few more words, he said that when the vet opened his arms wide to protect Cool Cat from the snow, he “looked like an angel with his arms shielding us from the snow and talking to me to calm me down”. When they arrived at the plane that would take Cool Cat to the surgeon, Matthew said goodbye to her and snapped her picture. He told reporters later that he didn’t know if he would see her again.
When Cool Cat arrived at the McGrath checkpoint, the vets relieved the pressure on her stomach a second time. They decided that she could fly all the way to Anchorage for surgery. The vet there confirmed that Heezon had saved Cool Cat’s life at the Takotna. Without a doubt, the actions he took were the right ones. Cool Cat had emergency surgery in Anchorage and spent some time there. She started to eat and was ready to recover at home. Matthew said that he missed her but is glad she’s alive. He had to stay with his team. Several of them are Cool Cat’s puppies who have grown up and joined Matthew’s sled dog team. Her puppies; Pink Floyd, EO, and Motorhead, were remaining in Alaska to continue in the next Iditarod race leg to Nome.
When all was said and done, Matthew was thankful that Heezen was able to save Cool Cat when she was in danger at the Takotna checkpoint. Without Heezon’s help, Cool Cat might have died there. Matthew plans to nominate Heezen and the assisting veterinarians for the Iditarod trail’s “Golden Stethoscope” award. Matthew believes that they “totally deserve it”. Though PETA news reports are considering Matthew’s dealings with his team as unethical, others are proclaiming Cool Cat’s survival as representative of the values Iditarod embraces. Before Matthew ran in Iditarod 2020, his 9th, he was interviewed for Teacher on the Trail.
He told the story about how he adopted Cool Cat when she was just 5 months old. Matthew took the time to train her to be a lead dog. He investigated her lineage, which shows that her parents were part of the winning Iditarod 2011 team. Cool Cat’s puppies can trace their heritage back to several race-winning lead dogs. Cool Cat was shy when adopted but emerged to become one of Matthew’s strongest and most confident lead dogs in his kennel called 17th-Dog.
Close to 60 mushers and sled dog teams started the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race north of Anchorage, Alaska on March 8. Mushers and dogs raced almost 1,000 miles across Alaska to finish in Nome on March 18. Norwegian Thomas Waerner arrived in Nome first to win the 2020 race. As of March 19, 2020, Matthew was in 26th position at the White Mountain checkpoint. But no matter how Matthew finishes, he is one lucky musher who is extremely glad and thankful to the veterinarians who saved Cool Cat.