The crowd gathered, stretched and squinted to see who was coming through the trees to claim third place in the Can-Am 250. Abi Pett and her team charged across the finish line to a mixed reception Monday morning. Family and friends were cheering. They came quickly to unhook the team and congratulate Pett. Others turned away muttering. Pett finished behind Martin Massicotte and Andre Longchamps with a time of 28 hours, 19 minutes and 45 seconds. Third place of the Can-Am comes with a $2,500 purse. There are some who feel Pett and her team should not be eligible for the prize money. Pett’s lead dog was a cat named Meeko.
Pett has been dogsledding since she was 4 years old and racing since she was 12. Last year she competed in the Can-Am 100 with 10 dogs. It was her first long-distance race and she earned second place. This year, Pett raced those same 10 dogs and Meeko. Meeko is a Maine coon cat. He is named after the raccoon in the Disney movie Pocahontas. Meeko is large, even for a Maine coon cat. He weighs 28 pounds and stands 17 inches tall–18.5 if you count his ears. From the tip of his tail to the tip of his nose, he is 42 inches long!
Pett says Meeko is not as strong as the powerful Alaskan huskies, but he is smart and in charge. Before Meeko wore a harness, he would wait for Pett and the huskies to return from a training run. “He would walk near me as I fed and watered the dogs,” Pett said. “He is like the mayor, greeting them and keeping them in line.” He has been known to roll the young pups on their back in a show of authority. Even the big alphas don’t cross him. If any of the huskies misbehaved while Pett was hooking up, Meeko swatted at them. On cold nights, he curls up with the huskies in the yard rather than come inside.
“He loves to be outside,” Pett laughs. “He thinks he is a dog, he always has.” Meeko used to follow along when Pett was skijoring with her German Shepherd, Leo. Pett decided to give Meeko a chance. One afternoon she found a harness that fit him and hooked him up with Leo. “That first run, skijoring with both of them,” Pett gushes, “it was exhilarating for all three of us!” Still, hooking Meeko up with the team didn’t seem likely until the afternoon Meeko followed them on a training run. Pett thought she would end up giving Meeko a ride in the sled after the first hill. “But he just kept up with the team,” she said. “How could I tell him no after that?”
The next afternoon, as Pett began hooking up, she brought out Meeko’s harness, too. He sat down at the front of the team like he belonged there. Pett said she wasn’t sure about putting Meeko in the lead. “But, who am I to argue with the smartest guy I know?” she said, reaching to scratch Meeko’s ears. From then on, he trained as hard as the huskies.
The rules for the Can-Am do not prohibit the use of cats. Those opposed to Pett’s lead dog say the rules and guidelines are not inclusive either. George Edgars has begun a new group to protest Pett and her inclusion in the race. The group is called Dogs Only Genuine Sledding, or D.O.G.S. for short. Edgars said the group will not tolerate a cat in the race. “It is called a dog sled race for a reason. There will be no cats allowed.”
Pett doesn’t say much about D.O.G.S. “We won, fair and square,” she said. “Meeko and I are just going to keep celebrating with the dogs.”
They are already preparing for next year’s race. Pett will be 15 by the time the Can-Am rolls around next year. “By next year, a cat dogsledding will be no big deal. But, I will still make headlines. Next year, you will come take our picture because I will be the youngest to win first place!”