The True Story of Balto & Disney's Hero Dog

Posted by Megan Swinney
Balto dog statue in Central Park, New York.
Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

A mighty sled dog who helped save a small town's children.

Disney has made a name for itself, turning real stories into animated works of art. The facts usually differ quite a bit from the original story, usually to make it a little more kid-friendly or add the Disney spin. A few songs here and a lot of talking animals there, and wallah, we have a Disney hero movie. In the Balto movie, the half-wolf, half-husky, did not fit in anywhere though he longed to be a part of a dog team.  But none of the other dogs wanted the wolfdog on their teams. Of course, in true Disney fashion, the part wolf-dog goes on an adventure to get the serum and save his little human.

Balto's Real Story

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While the animated adventure had plenty of added theatrical elements for the sake of entertainment, the real story is fairly impressive all on its own. Just like the Balto movie, the real-life dog was a part of the sled team bringing the diphtheria vaccine to Nome, Alaska. The real Balto was from Nome, Alaska, and was born in 1923. He was a Siberian Husky who was named after the Norwegian explorer Samuel Balto. Balto had moved to Alaska in 1898 and participated in the Klondike Gold Rush. He became a popular person in Nome, though he died before the dog named after him was born.

When diphtheria broke out in 1925, the closest town to get the vaccine was Anchorage, 537 miles away. Anchorage said they could get it to Nenana, but no closer. Unfortunately, Nenana was not much closer, sitting 483 miles away.

Using Sled Dogs

Sled dogs were a common part of life, with sled dog races being a popular sport. Between 1908 and 1917, Alaska held the All-Alaska Sweepstakes Dog Sled Race. Mushers would go from Nome to Candle and back, a 400-mile route. Mushers were required to finish with the exact number of dogs they started with, dead or alive. This was an incentive for the mushers to take excellent care of the pups, which many took better care of their dogs than themselves. Avid racer Leonhard Seppala was an experienced racer who would become Balto's owner.

When it came to organizing the serum run, the mushers had a plan. To get the fragile life-saving antitoxin back to the town, the top 20 mushers devised a relay system. Balto was two years old and put on a team with Gunner Kaasen leading. Seppala and his dogs from Siberia, including his 12-year-old dog Togo were on another team.

However, they faced harsh conditions are rough terrain. The temperatures and winds were against them, too, with temperatures reaching down to -40.

Balto was not a trained sled dog and ran as a part of the pack and not as the guide dog. Though, he was not as big of an outcast as his movie version. However, the guide dog could not get a handle on the winter storm, so Balto took over and led the team, much to Kaasen's surprise. Balto was able to get the team back on track and into the Alaskan town of Nome, bringing the children the medicine they desperately needed.

Balto's Legacy

The dog was sold to the Cleveland Zoo so people could see him. He died in March of 1933, and his body was stuffed and put on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

In the 1970s, the Iditarod Dog Sled Race began. The annual race follows the same route that Balto and the other mushers took from Anchorage to Nome. The journey takes 8 to 15 days, and people around the world flock to see it.

Balto is forever immortalized by the 1995 animated/ live-action movie directed by Simon Wells for Amblin Entertainment. Since the live-action opening scene with Grandma Rosy (Miriam Margolyes) and her granddaughter (Lola Bates-Campbell) were shot in New York City in Central Park, there is a statue in his honor.

Balto's Movie

In the movie, Balto is cheered on by his Russian goose friend Boris (Bob Hoskins) and two polar bears Muk and Luk (Phil Collins), as he goes up against his nemesis Steele, voiced by Jim Cummings. The other dogs Nikki, Kaltag, and Star, were Steele's friends and voiced by Jack Angel, Danny Mann, and Robbie Rist. Balto's little girl Rosy was voiced by Juliette Brewer. Balto was voiced by Kevin Bacon, while Bridget Fonda voiced his love interest in the movie Jenna. Her friend Sylvie, an Afghan hound, is voiced by Sandra Dickinson. The puptacular cast is rounded out by Donald Sinden, who voices Doc, a St. Bernard.

The adventure-filled screenplay was written by Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, Roger S. H. Schulman, and David Steven Cohen. The animated movie was produced by Steven Spielberg Amblimation studio, which eventually became Dreamworks with music by James Horner. The end credits give the nod to another animal adventure with Fievel from An American Tail: Fievel Goes West pops in to adjust the production companies logo. The movie had a release date of December 22, 1995.

Balto's adventure didn't just stop after the first movie. The franchise continued on with the direct to movie Balto II: Wolf Quest and Balto III: Wings of Change. Togo, who has been touted as the real hero in the "Great Serum Run," also got his own movie.

Did you ever watch Balto? Let us know on our Wide Open Pets Facebook page. 

READ MORE: "Benji" Was One of the Most Famous Small Dogs in History

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The True Story of Balto & Disney's Hero Dog