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Balto, the dog that saved a town from an epidemic

Many times, I wonder what a hero is and what it takes to be one. This idea changes in our minds as we grow up: when we are kids, heroes are wonderful beings with supernatural powers: they have X-rays, they can fly, they can appear, disappear, and travel in space and time as if by magic. They are good, perfect, and capable of fighting evil in an almost infallible way. By the way, good and evil are two totally separate things: on the one hand there are the superheroes, and the villains upon the other. All in all, when we are children, we believe in true heroes.

Girl on Balto´s statueGirl over Balto´s statue

Image / Eden, Janine and Jim.

With the passing of time, we realize that it is not exactly that way: heroes become real, fallible, and imperfect beings. They do not have supernatural or special powers. Good and evil live inside of them. However, love prevails over hatred, enabling them to reach important objectives, overcome difficult obstacles and fight for their well-being and that of others. That is, after all, the true meaning of the word hero: it stems from ‘eros,’ which means love in Greek. In other words, when we are grown-ups, we are lucky to meet some heroes that are true.

Balto had a little bit of both worlds: he was an authentic and real hero at the same time. He was a Siberian Husky who lived at the turn of the 20th century in Nome, Alaska. It was January 1925 and, a diphtheria epidemic, which affected kids under five, unleashed in that town, located in one end of Northwestern Alaska. To fight it, it was necessary to use the anti-diphtheria toxin, which was not in stock in the town hospitals. It was necessary to replace it. So, Nome authorities telegraphed their counterparts in Anchorage, the capital of Alaska, to ask for some serum, which they did have.

The problem was that Nome is 995 miles (1,600 km) far from Anchorage and, given the inclemency of winter, it was impossible to ship the serum neither by water, as oceans and rivers were frozen, nor by air, as there were abundant snow storms at that time of the year. The only possible way was to move it from Anchorage to Nenana by train, and from there, to Nome. The train would cover the first 372 miles (600 km) from Anchorage to Nenana and the remaining 623 miles (1,000 km) would be covered by sled dogs. A relay system was designed in which more than twenty groups of dogs participated, each one guided by a lead dog together with a musher. They had to battle extremely low temperatures, which reached -400 F (or -400 C); strong winds that knocked them and made them stumble and give up. They crossed breaking and slippery ice, frozen waters; they endured extreme efforts and tiredness. They climbed mountains, went through tundras and spruce woods. In spite of all of that, they did it.

To everyone’s surprise, the whole itinerary took only five and a half days, and on February 2nd 1925, the last group of dogs, led by Balto, arrived in Nome. Balto was not thought to be a good leader, but with this incredible feat, he proved the contrary and led his team safely to Nome with the help of his master, Gunner Kaassen.

Balto with his ownerBalto together with his owner

Balto became famous since then. He was featured in the most important newspapers of the time, and by the end of that same year, a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park, New York City, in honor of such an epic trek. Many people visit it daily. Balto was present when his monument was inaugurated.

Statue of BaltoBalto´s statue in New York

In front of the statue, there is a plaque with the following description:

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.

Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence”

To date, Balto is a superhero for children, and, especially, for the children of Nome. Thanks to his heroic deed, together with the other dogs in his team, as is the case of Togo, another important dog in the “serum run to Nome,” all the children in Nome were cured and the epidemic was eradicated. In fact, every March, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is celebrated year after year, which goes from Anchorage to Nome, to pay homage to Balto and all the heroic dogs.

Balto´s monument

Image / “Reywas92″. 

Some time after, Balto and the other dogs were moved to the Cleveland zoo in Ohio, where he lived until he became a legend. He was named after Samuel Balto, an explorer and gold miner who lived in Nome during the Gold Rush. To date, he is exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for those who want to meet him.

Balto in museumImage / Luke Scarano.

Such was the impact of this four-legged hero that, in 1995, Steven Spielberg created the animated feature film Balto based on the story of this distinguished and beloved dog. In the film, he is characterized as half dog and half wolf, perhaps because Siberian Huskies are very similar to their predecessors, the wolves. In fact, they howl like them, but do not bark. Perhaps it was simply a poetic license by the writers.

I am for the promotion of real –but not imaginary– heroes for children because, by doing so, we can teach them a great life lesson: the idea that they can become heroes as well if they use the mightiest power of all: the power of love. That is what Balto did to help the children in Nome and that is why he belongs in the podium of the greatest heroes of all times.