by Jeff Fleischer(Chicagoland Tails, February 2006)
On March 4, dozens of mushers and hundreds of dogs will take part in the 34th running of the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous sled race of more than 1,100 miles between Anchorage and Nome. The race is among the state’s largest tourism draws, and more than 30 mushers will win prize money—with upward of $72,000 for the top finish.
Since the Iditarod began, however, it has prompted concern about the dogs’ safety. At least 126 have died during the race’s history, and animal-welfare experts believe many more die shortly after due to injuries or illnesses sustained in the competition. “The physical stress of the race also sets dogs up for getting illnesses down the road,” says Margery Glickman, director and founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition, which opposes the race. According to Glickman, causes of death during the race have included bleeding ulcers, sudden-death syndrome, internal hemorrhaging, drowning, heart failure, strangulation, pneumonia, external myopathy, and injuries from collisions.
“They run too far too fast in cruel weather conditions,” says Kelly Connolly, an issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. “The emphasis is placed on the competition, and as a result, these dogs are pushed to the extreme limits of their bodies.” Because of the competition, the speed of the race has increased dramatically over the years. During the first Iditarod in 1973, the fastest team completed the route on the race’s 21st day. The record, set in 2002, involved finishing the race in less than nine days, and 10-day finishes have become common. “It used to be, not a less serious event, but one run at a more leisurely pace,” Connolly says. “Now they’re being asked to perform faster each year, which taxes them physically.”
The race’s distance is another issue, since the Iditarod is considered the world’s longest contest involving sled dogs. “The length probably has the most impact on the dogs because they’re running mile after mile,” Glickman says. “The Iditarod has a long history of dog death, illness, and injury that we don’t see in other, shorter sled races.” According to the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, slightly more than half the dogs starting the race do not finish for various reasons.
For example, mushers can drop dogs who are injured, or otherwise unable to continue, at a series of mandatory checkpoints along the Iditarod route, where a team of 35 race veterinarians are on hand to administer examinations and treatment. Mushers must check in at every checkpoint but, while race rules require them to make one 24-hour and two eight-hour stopovers, other checkpoints have no minimum stop. Recent race records show some mushers passing through checkpoints in less than three minutes. “Stopping times at checkpoints can be really short,” Glickman says. “We think that undermines the claim that the dogs get good veterinary care during the race—it just can’t happen that quickly.” And while veterinarians can recommend pulling a dog from the race, the final decision rests with the musher.
Iditarod officials have expanded veterinary care since the race began, and stress that the dogs undergo a health evaluation before the race. All dogs must have vaccinations and be dewormed within 10 days of the race. They must also be given blood work and microchips, and must have an ECG to check for heart problems. According to the Iditarod Trail Committee, four dogs have been disqualified before the race because of potential heart complications.
In addition to the race conditions, dogs have also died because of abuse by their mushers. A former Iditarod winner was disqualified in 1996 for racing his team through waist-deep water, causing one dog to drown, while another was disqualified in 1985 for kicking and killing a dog. The Iditarod has the authority to impose a lifetime ban for animal abuse—as it did in 1990 to a former winner who hit his dog with a snow hook. “Any musher found guilty of inhumane treatment is banned from competition,” explains Chas St. George, a spokesman for the Iditarod Trail Committee. “That includes what they do away from the race, including in their kennels.”
However, according to Glickman, the conditions in kennels—such as dogs being permanently tethered—would violate many states’ animal-cruelty laws. Some Iditarod mushers have admitted to killing unwanted puppies and dogs, including dogs injured by the race. While there is no official statistic for how many sled dogs die in kennels, the Humane Society considers these deaths, along with those caused directly by the race, among its reasons for opposing the Iditarod. “You have to balance whether this sport is worth the injury or death to these animals when compared to the competition,” Connolly says.
Sidebar: The Urban Iditarod offers a humorous alternative
On the same day as the big race in Alaska, the annual Urban Iditarod will take place in both San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.
But instead of animals, the Urban Iditarod features teams of five people—our “dogs” and a “musher”—pulling shopping carts through city streets on a predetermined route.
The “dogs” must be tied to the cart, and barking is encouraged.
All teams must spend at least 20 minutes at each of five rest stops—pubs and restaurants—to keep them well-watered.
Part of the fun comes from the costumes. While many teamsdress in dog outfits, others have dressed as the Village People, French maids, and Elvis impersonators while running the race.
“I think people enjoy that it’s zany,” says Brian Davies, who organizes Portland’s race. “People like getting dressed up and running through the city, and stopping at the pubs probably helps.”
The March 4 race will be the 12th held in San Francisco, and the fifth in Portland. The race lasts about three hours, and is held regardless of the weather. There is no cost for the event in either city, though mushers must supply their own cart and costumes, and can buy food and drink at the rest stops.
To learn more about or sign up for the San Francisco event, visit www.UrbanIditarod.com. For the Portland race, go to MySite. Verizon.net/UrbanIditarod.