Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Ive had a few conversations over the past few weeks with folks that have been around Seppala Siberian Sleddogs for as long or longer than I. Some themes keep popping up in those conversations so I thought it would be good to facilitate a dialogue. And I will admit here at the outset that this is a gross oversimplification of issues and history, but it will already seem overly tedious to most readers so I beg your grace.
A pic of my 2020 Seppala team on Expedition day five in the Northwoods of Maine.
Therefore, what I will express here may not be the opinion of the board of the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, but my own thoughts on these important issues.
1930's Siberian Import Kre Vanka
I have friends from my days as a supporter of the now closed Seppala Project and International Seppala Association, That were based out of Canada. In my recent exchanges with them, I hear them echo the refrain of their former leader; That refrain is that Seppala's should go extinct- that there was not enough genetic variation saved to preserve them as a distinct breed. "The Seppala, as a breed, is dead." one said to me recently.
I thought, how sad, That these men and women would so easily throw in the towel on a half century of work, just because their retired leader says so. And to hear such things from the very friend that encouraged me to join The International Seppala Association all those years ago. Even sadder to know these all were repeating the words originating with the man that had done so much to preserve this breed for decades.
What I have to say in response to all of this is critical. So, I should first point out the admiration that I had and have for the Work of the now closed club’s founder, Jeffrey Bragg. He devoted his life to the Seppala Siberian. And I joined his ranks those many years ago because I believed then, and believe now that- in theory- his arguments for the use of Chuckchi dogs rather than racing Siberian Huskies to deepen the genetic pool were solidly supported by the breed's early history. So please keep this in mind as I say what follows. I made two cross continent trips to meet with him because his charisma for the preservation of this breed was infectious.
1930's Siberian Import Tserko
There must surely have been no such fatalism in his heart when he embarked on his quest to rescue the breed more than a half century ago. And the dogged determination that he displayed then must be found in our generation as well, as the torch is passed. I firmly disagree with the notion that, due to a lack of genetic depth and high coefficients of inbreeding, the project is a failure. From the very beginning of our breed almost 100 years ago, there has always been a need for the occasional and judicious introduction of new genetics. Especially with a second “founder effect” as we had in the Markovo days, the need could not be ignored. The question has never been, can we keep a “Markovo pure line” going indefinitely. The question has always been- with Seppala, Wheeler, Bragg, Willett, etc- “from where shall we get genetic variation?” To someone with an early 20th century idea of breed “purity” this may be found unappealing. But it has always been so. Consider, for example, When Captain George Graham resuscitated the Irish Wolfhound. In order to rescue the breed he gathered what few remaining wolfhounds there were (as did Bragg) into a breeding program and then judiciously outcrossed and bred back from Borzois, Deerhounds, Mastiffs and Great Danes. Here too, with our Seppalas, genetic depth needed to be regained. The question has always been “With what?” Bragg and his International Seppala Association argued for historical solution- Siberian Imports. But the nature of western relations with the Soviet Union made this well nigh impossible. Bragg secured a stud through channels that he believed to be from the proper region and began integrating Shakal into his program. The Seppala Project Russian import, Shakal
Doug Willett and the USA based International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club argued that there was no proof of Shakal's origin or mushing prowess, and therefore opted to go for a more practical option; using racing Siberian Huskies- like Kodiak's Layla- as the outcross of choice. Windy Ridge Griffen- a racing (Anadyr) Siberian husky used by Willet as an out-cross.
And so an already weak breed was split into two camps.
Many stones were throne from the ISA at the ISSSC. “They have percentage Seppalas. We have Seppalas.” But it was merely rhetoric. Both were crossing out for the very same reasons. Only, the ISA was considering their crosses Seppalas and not attaching a percentage to them with the intentions of breeding back up.
The reason the Seppala Project and the ISA failed was not for a lack of genetics but for a lack of healthy leadership. I've seen it in religious organizations and saw it clearly there as well. As a charismatic leader ages, he often finds the upcoming generation unworthy of his mantle. Ive seen thriving mega churches fail in the second generation because the founder did not properly groom and release the next generation, could not willingly relinquish control over time. Instead, He held on to all control till the end and verbally abused and critically drove away many who were the most devoted to him.
And then he declared his life's work a failure- leaving those who remained to go down with the ship.
But it was not a failure. I credit Bragg (and others to a lesser degree) with rescuing the Seppala Siberian. The breed is alive and well today, and Bragg is much to be thanked for it.
“You smite the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.” Since Bragg sank his ship, rather than passing the mantle and the helm, many of his stalwart followers have just accepted his benediction as gospel. They merely accept that all the work Bragg and those in his camp did for decades was for nothing- that the dogs aging in their back yards are for nought. Others, however, have imported Chukchi dogs from the former soviet block and I look with great interest at the results.
Modern Chukchi Team racing in Siberia
The beautiful thing about the club that remains- The International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, is that BECAUSE if its percentage based registry, it can be a home for both factions. If a Seppala kennel feels the Chukchi dogs are not well proven, then they need not breed to them. If a Seppala kennel feels that racing Siberians are unacceptable options to reduce the genetic bottleneck, then they can breed to other Chuckchi/ Seppala crosses. And we can all work together for the future of our beloved breed. “A percentage Seppala is not a Seppala!” I may hear from a Bragg devotee. To whit I will reply that it was Bragg himself that argued to me on multiple occasions- when I was the one pleading for more Markovo pure dogs to be bred- that the agricultural model of breeding out for genetic health and then breeding back to something like 7/8, should be adopted. In the wake of the Disney movie, Togo, we have seen a gross flooding of the market of Siberians and Alaskans being sold as “Seppalas.” I have grown tired of well meaning folks telling me they purchased a Seppala only to find it to be nothing of a sort when they research the dogs pedigree. Never before has there been any greater need for us to unite and clearly define to the world what a Seppala is. I am therefore making a public plea to our friends on the other side of the Seppala divide. Dont lose heart. Although your club is gone, The Seppala Siberian Sleddog is not. You are welcome in the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club. We stand ready to welcome you and your Seppalas.
“You may say I’m a dreamer. But Im not the only one. I pray someday you can join us.” I believe we can heal the rift in our breed and present to the world a more healthy and robust Seppala than has been seen in a hundred years, if we do this together.