Over the weekend, a new Elizabeth Holmes profile was published in the New York Times. In the article, writer Amy Chozick spends time with Holmes, her husband, and her two young children, as the Theranos co-founder, who now wants to be known as “Liz,” prepares to go to prison for a conviction. 11 years old. she sentences for defrauding her investors. This is the first time Holmes has spoken to the media in seven years, and she either a) reveals a new, gentle, motherly side to herself or or) makes the most of Chozick’s likability, depending on her point of view. Chozick isn’t sure, herself. In an amusing aside, she mentions her editor’s reaction when she told them that she thought “Liz” was “gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way”: “Amy Chozick, you fell in love!”
Part of the shooting had to do with a dog story. “In the last days of Theranos,” Chozick wrote, “Mrs. Holmes has a dog, a Siberian husky named Balto. Apparently, in 2022, Balto met a bad end, being “carried” off his front porch by a mountain lion. According to Holmes’ associate Billy Evans, Liz searched for Balto in the woods for 16 hours, “digging through brambles and poison oaks,” Chozick wrote, “hoping to find him alive.” Chozick sees meaning in this tale: “The relentlessness. certainty fanaticism. It is the same way that Mrs. Holmes continued to endure at Theranos.”
I once spent an equally possibly wrong amount of time writing a thesis which included the story of the historic Balto, a sled dog who participated in the 1925 “Serum Race,” an event in which relays of sled dog teams delivered antitoxin destined for the remote town of Nome, Alaska, where it was sparked an outbreak of diphtheria. (Before we had solid vaccines for diphtheria, we had antitoxins for your treatment.) But for some reason, the fact, reported by Nick Bilton for Vanity Fair in 2019, that Elizabeth Holmes had a Siberian husky named Balto, and that she insisted he was a wolf and had allowed him to poop all over the Theranos office? I missed it! Poop got the most press, but Holmes had also tried, Bilton reported, to turn Balto into a search-and-rescue dog, “spending weekends training him to find people in an emergency.” (That’s not, as Bilton pointed out, what huskies are for; they’re for running.)
Chozick and Bilton clearly understood that Holmes’s Balto had metaphorical value. But I think no one has yet fully understood how fucking hilarious it is that Elizabeth Holmes chose Balto, of all dogdom, for the namesake of this now probably dead dog. I don’t think it’s possible for dogs to be heroes (a belief that borders on a Slate’s official editorial post), which means you shouldn’t think dogs might be scammers either. But of all the celebrity sled dogs of that time (there were plenty, again, my thesisyes, i passed years), Balto was definitely the one who got more than his fair share of credit. Vaudeville appearances! Parades! TO statue in central park! A stuffed pride of place at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where you can still see it today! Since we are overextending our animal analogies these days, I’ll just say it: he was the Elizabeth Holmes of dogs.
And just like with Holmes, Balto’s reality distortion field didn’t last. These days, including the National Park Service and the Walt Disney Corporationthe latter a one-time staunch balto supporter, acknowledges that it was Togo, another Siberian husky, who did the hardest part of the Serum Run. Famed musher Leonhard Seppala owned Togo, who was a mess when he was a pup, undisciplined, a flight risk, but turned out to be very good at leading dog teams. During the race, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, Togo led a team for 261 miles, a distance that included a dangerous crossing of Norton Sound, while Balto ran just 55. The Alaska Native riders, with their own teams of dogs, they covered much of the remaining distance, barely being mentioned in the news coverage. But Balto, with musher Gunnar Kaasen, turned out to be the one who ran the last few miles to the city, sealed the deal, and delivered the serum to the children. This is America, for which he got the credit. But “for those who know more than Disney history,” the NPS website sniffs, “Balto is considered the backup dog.”
There’s also the fact that a lot of people back then, like Holmes, liked to claim that their sled dogs were verging on the wolf, in genes or in action. Jack London wrote two books about it:one in which a dog runs away into the woods and, sure enough, turns into a wolf; other in which a wolfhound is tamed and does indeed become a dog, but there were plenty of other examples in the culture of the time. If you were writing a thesis on this, like me, you might say that white fixation on saying my dog is part wolf, speaking of his time in Alaska or the Yukon, was an interesting artifact of colonialism, a way of claiming dominance over wilderness while remaining civilized. (Native dogs were often perceived as unruly and native dog owners as irresponsible.) To put everything I just said in a less-than-grad-seminar way: How much tougher do you, the owner of a “wolf” dog, look when framing it like that? A lot!
All of which is to say: the fact that “Liz” Holmes had a Siberian husky named Balto, after a fake hero dog from 100 years ago, whom she said was a wolf, and whose bodily functions she hardly cared about. to control… the fact that she didn’t seem to understand what was this dog bred forand tried to turn his Balto, named after the hero with the fake dog, into a other kind of hero dog (because serum races are few and far between in 2023?)… and the fact that, according to the story told by his partner in a letter to the judge at the Holmes trial, Balto died, not in a boring canine way like getting hit by a car, but by the paws of a cougar, an avatar of the wild straight out of Jack London… the fact that “Liz” supposedly searched for him during 16 hours, getting lost in the brush and refusing to give up? Yes, yes, if it really happened it’s a tragedy. But it’s all so perfect! Forgive me for thinking: Amy Chozick, you have rolled.