Over the weekend, a new Elizabeth Holmes profile was published in the New York Times. In the piece, writer Amy Chozick spends time with Holmes, her husband, and her two small children, as the disgraced Theranos co-founder, who now wants to be known as Liz, prepares to go to prison for an 11-year sentence 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, mellow, maternal side of herself or b) takes full advantage of Chozick’s sympathy, depending on your point of view. Chozick isn’t sure herself. In a funny aside, she mentions her editor’s reaction when she told them she thought Liz was “gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way”: “Amy Chozick, you got rolled!”
Part of the rolling had to do with a dog story. “In the waning days of Theranos,” Chozick writes, “Ms. Holmes got a dog, a Siberian husky named Balto.” Apparently, in 2022, Balto met with a bad end, being “carried away” from the front porch of their home by a mountain lion. According to Holmes’ partner, Billy Evans, Liz searched the woods for Balto for 16 hours, “digging through brambles and poison oak, hoping to find him alive.” Chozick sees meaning in this tale: “The relentlessness. The certainty. The fanaticism. It’s the same way Ms. Holmes kept hanging on at Theranos.”
I once spent a likewise-possibly-misguided amount of time writing a thesis that included the story of the historical Balto—a sled dog who participated in the 1925 Serum Run, an event in which relays of sled dog teams passed off antitoxin destined for the remote town of Nome, Alaska, where a diphtheria outbreak raged. (Before we had solid vaccines for diphtheria, we had antitoxins for its treatment.) But for some reason, the fact, reported by Nick Bilton for Vanity Fair back in 2019, that Elizabeth Holmes had a Siberian husky named Balto, and that she insisted that he was a wolf and had allowed him to poop all around the Theranos office? I missed that! The poop got the most press, but Holmes had also tried, Bilton reported, to make Balto into a search and rescue dog, “spending weekends training him to find people in an emergency.” (That is not, as Bilton pointed out, what huskies are for; they are for running.)
Chozick and Bilton clearly each understood that Holmes’ Balto had metaphorical value. But I think nobody has yet fully understood how freaking hilarious it is that Elizabeth Holmes picked Balto, of all dogdom, for this now-probably-dead-dog’s namesake. I don’t think it’s possible for dogs to be heroes (a belief that borders on an official Slate editorial position), which means I also shouldn’t think it’s possible for dogs to be grifters. But of all the celebrity sled dogs of that era (there were many—again, my thesis; yes, I spent years), Balto was definitely the one who got more credit than his due. Vaudeville appearances! Parades! A statue in Central Park! A taxidermied place of pride at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where you can still see him today! Since we’re all about overextending our animal analogies today, I’ll just say it: He was the Elizabeth Holmes of dogs.
And as with Holmes, Balto’s reality distortion field did not last. These days, even the National Park Service and the Walt Disney Corporation, the latter a staunch onetime Balto partisan, recognize that it was Togo, another Siberian husky, who did the toughest part of the Serum Run. The famed musher Leonhard Seppala owned Togo, who was a mess as a puppy—undisciplined, a flight risk—but turned out to be really good at leading dog teams. During the run, 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 only 55. Native Alaskan drivers, with their own dog teams, covered much of the remaining distance, and were barely mentioned in the news coverage at all. But Balto, with musher Gunnar Kaasen, turned out to be the one to run the final miles into the town, sealing the deal and delivering the serum to the kids. This is America, so he got the credit. But “to those who know more than the Disney story,” sniffs the NPS website, “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 borderline wolf—in genes or in action. Jack London wrote two books about it—one in which a dog runs away into the woods and, effectively, becomes a wolf; another in which a wolf-dog is domesticated and, effectively, becomes a dog—but there were tons of other examples in the culture at that time. If you were writing a thesis about this, as I was, you might note that white people’s fixation on saying “My dog is part wolf,” when talking about their time in Alaska or the Yukon, was an interesting artifact of colonialism, a way to claim mastery over the 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 graduate-seminar way: How much more badass do you, the owner of a “wolf”-dog, seem when you frame it like that? A lot!
All of which is to say: The fact that “Liz” Holmes had a Siberian husky named Balto, named after a fake dog hero from 100 years ago, and whom she said was a wolf, and whose bodily functions she barely cared to control … the fact that she did not seem to understand what this dog was bred to do, and tried to make her Balto, named after that fake dog hero, into an entirely other kind of dog hero (because serum runs are few and far between in 2023?) … and the fact that, according to the story told by her partner in a letter to the judge in Holmes’ trial, Balto died, not in a boring old dog way like being hit by a car, but at the paws of a mountain lion, an avatar of the wild straight out of Jack London … the fact that “Liz” supposedly searched for him for 16 hours, losing herself in the underbrush, and refused to give up? Yes, yes, if it really happened, it’s a tragedy. But it’s all so perfect! Forgive me for thinking it: Amy Chozick, you got rolled.