If only we had a hero like Balto now, a brave sled dog racing to deliver a magic elixir that would save us from the deadly coronavirus. There’s no medicine yet to cure the world of COVID-19, but in 1925, Siberian husky Balto, leading the team of musher Gunnar Kassen, galloped into Nome, Alaska, with a diphtheria antitoxin to help defeat a horrible outbreak of the killer disease.
Named after Norwegian Sámi explorer Samuel Johannesen Balto, who traversed Greenland with Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, Balto was born in Nome in 1919 and died in 1933 in Cleveland, where his remains are mounted in the city’s Museum of Natural History. On December 17, 1925, Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick G. R. Roth’s statue of Balto was dedicated on a small outcropping of rock west of East Dr. and Sixty-Seventh St. in Central Park, near an underpass north of the children’s zoo. The regal dog stands proudly, tongue out, eyes eagerly anticipating his next job, his front paws higher than his back paws, giving him a noble position. His ears, back, and belly have lost some of their original dark color because kids and adults rub them for good luck. Balto himself attended the statue’s unveiling, with Kassen. On the rock below the classy canine is a plaque that reads:
“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.”
Roth also designed the Mother Goose statue, featuring Humpty Dumpty, Old King Cole, Little Jack Horner, Mother Hubbard, and Mary and her little lamb, that resides in front of Rumsey Playfield, as well as the bronze lion at Columbia University’s Baker Field. Balto, who was neutered and therefore could not be bred, has also been immortalized in Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comic book (as “Barko”), in Alistair MacLean’s 1959 novel Night without End, and in Simon Wells’s 1995 animated live-action film, Balto, in which he’s voiced by Kevin Bacon.
Most of us are sheltered at home, but if you have to go out — as of now, parks are open, and sunshine and fresh air are healthy alternatives to being shut inside, as long as you maintain social distancing — stop by and say hello to Balto, although you’re probably better off not petting him. And just imagine him leading a pack bringing in much-needed gloves, masks, respirators, and ventilators, helping humanity once again in another dramatic health crisis.