The snow is thin again in parts of Alaska this year, but that won’t stop the state’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from happening, or slow the fans that flock to Alaska to follow the race, – or the controversy that surrounds it.
When the annual Iditarod opens with its ceremonial IditaRide for fans on March 5th, mushers will be gliding over some brown patches in downtown Anchorage. So far in 2016, Alaska’s largest city has recorded only 25.8 inches of snow, one third of its normal 74.5 inches. Excitement has not been dampened, though. The opportunity for fans to ride with Iditarod mushers again has raised over $200,000 for the Iditarod organization.
Snow also will be sparse in Willow when the race “restarts” on March 6th; however, race directors have opted not to move the starting line north to Fairbanks, since plenty of snow blankets the remainder of the 1150 miles of the route, which ends in Nome.
The thrill of the race, which is the driving force of its participants and what consumes its fans, also draws concerns from various animal rights organizations.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race in its present state began in 1973. Although some race opponents dispute it, most historians agree that the race is a nod to the pivotal role sled dogs played in settling Alaska, the United States’ “Last Frontier,” when dogs transported mail and supplies to the state’s most remote regions before the use of airplanes became common. More specifically, it commemorates an heroic relay run of sled dogs in 1925 to deliver desperately needed serum to diphtheria victims in Nome when inclement weather grounded airplanes.
Togo, lead dog and the real hero of the 1925 medicine run to Nome, Alaska.
Certain animal rights organizations condemn the event because of the brutal conditions under which it is run. The race traverses steep Alaskan hills and frozen rivers, often in the dead of night, in sub zero temperatures and sometimes in whiteout conditions. It’s a grueling, teeth-gritting challenge for any musher (the driver of the sled), let alone the dogs, especially since completing the race generally takes between eight and eleven days. To maintain speed, most mushers won’t sleep at all the first three days of the race and only 2-4 hours a day after that. Yet, hardy men and women come from all over the world to compete. Nor is age an obstacle. The youngest driver to run the Iditarod was 18 years old, while the oldest to compete was Colonel Norman Vaughan, who completed six of thirteen Iditarods, running his first at the age of 72 and his last at 86. He may not have been the fastest musher, but he was surely the toughest.
Interestingly, dog racing is utterly gender blind. In fact, it is the only sport in which women and men compete on a totally level playing field. A popular saying in the 1980s was: “Alaska – where men are men, and women win the Iditarod.” That was the decade in which Susan Butcher showed the men how it’s done by winning an astonishing four out of five Iditarod races (1986,1987,1988, 1990) before she fell ill and ultimately succumbed to cancer in 2006.
Musher Jeff King, Iditarod champion in 1996, 1998 and 2006, with his team in 2014. King was leading with less than 100 miles from the finish line when life-threatening winds forced him to scratch.
This year, 86 mushers are slated to leave the starting line on March 6th, having already run in three smaller qualifying races. Participating in the Iditarod is an expensive proposition. According to avid sled dog racers and identical twins Kristy and Anna Berington, items such as race food for the musher and the 12-16 sled dogs; an array of equipment; $1800 in dog boots to protect paws; veterinary bills; travel costs; and the $3000 entry fee, translate to a musher spending in the neighborhood of $16,000 just to think about the Iditarod. He or she may then spend another $15,000-$20,000 to lease and have a dog sled team trained. If the musher independently puts together the team, he or she will spend $1000 on a good dog, $2000-plus on a “lead dog,” while a great all-round sled dog may go for $10,000. Elite mushers cough up $100,000 per year on their dogs and racing. For all that work and all those costs, the winner of the 2015 Iditarod took home $50,000 and a new pickup truck, which is why most mushers rely on sponsors. Even then, they usually have to supplement their income with part time work such as providing guided tours for tourists, doing construction and taking commercial fishing jobs.
But obviously, a musher doesn’t run the race alone. Without a team of sled dogs giving their all to the task, there is no Iditarod. Are these animals abused? Or is racing an invigorating challenge for which they were born?
The heart of a champion in the eyes of a sled dog.
Each dog sled team at the Iditarod comprises twelve to sixteen dogs. A musher is not allowed to add dogs during the race, and at least six of the team must still be in harness when crossing the finish line. Prior to the race, veterinarians check all dogs for signs of performance-enhancing or other illegal drugs. Then dogs are examined from nose to tail: teeth, eyes, heart, lungs, joints, and genitals are scrutinized for injuries and wounds. Females are tested for pregnancy. Dogs are double-checked for identifying microchip implants and matching collar tags. They receive EKGs and their blood is checked.
Sled team dogs are extensively trained. A competitive team will run 2,000-3,000 miles in preparation for the Iditarod. They have to be in superhero shape: an Alaskan Husky in the Iditarod will burn more than 10,000 calories a day, which is why they are fed every 2 ½ to 3 hours during the race. According to an article in the Cornell Science News by Roger Segelken in 1996, the aerobic capacity, (or VO2 max) of a sled dog is about 240 milligrams of oxygen per kilogram of body weight. The significance? That’s about three times the aerobic capacity of a human Olympic marathoner.
Food may be the most critical element, but rest is also vital. According to the Berington twins, resting should match the time of exertion. For example, four hours on the trail should be balanced by four hour of rest, during which time dogs can be hydrated and fed, have their paws checked and treated if necessary, and when they can rest in warm straw beds.
Professionals at designated checkpoints examine dogs during the race. Any dog showing signs of injury, exhaustion or a disinclination to continue may be left at a “dog-drop,” to await transport off the course.
Yet, despite ongoing efforts to improve procedural care, injuries and death still mar the Iditarod. Animal rights organizations like PETA claim sled dog racing is inherently cruel, citing the culling of litters and canine living conditions. For certain, racing is inherently extreme. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, at least 146 dogs have died since the Iditarod began in 1973.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals addressed the situation thusly: “General concerns arise whenever intense competition results in dogs being pushed beyond their endurance or capabilities.”
Iditarod sled racing dogs may suffer frostbite, broken bones, torn muscles, lung damage and more. It’s troubling that veterinarians frequently are at a loss regarding the causes of death. Necropsies are usually inconclusive. Uncovering any pattern in the mortalities has proven difficult. A dog may appear fine at a checkpoint and be dead ten miles later. Additionally, some dogs die near the start of the race, some in the middle, and others near the end. Nor does position in the team provide clues.
By any measure, 2009 was a disastrous year at the Iditarod. Six dogs died. But even one death is heart wrenching. For example, in 2013, a team dog named Dorado was “dropped” at a checkpoint when the driver noticed him moving stiffly. Four days later, he was found dead, asphyxiated inside a snowdrift. However, seven other dogs waiting at the same drop point and enveloped by the same amount of snow, showed no ill effects. Race organizers say they since have increased the number of flights to checkpoints, transporting dogs more quickly for care, but the facts would indicate that Dorado’s death was avoidable.
Animal activists also bring up the use of devices such as the whip on sled dogs, and they contend that much abuse is covered up, an accusation difficult to prove. The Trail Committee did disqualify and suspend two-time runner up Ramy Brooks in 2007 for cruelty to his dogs. Ramy pled guilty to “spanking” each dog on his team with a trail marking lath, but observers testified he also punched and kicked his dogs when they refused to leave a checkpoint. He was suspended for 2008 and 2009 and put on probation for three years.
Despite improvements, sled dogs are still dying. According to the Alaska Dispatch, popular four-time champion Lance Mackey lost not one, but two dogs during the 2015 Iditarod. First, his three-year-old dog named Wyatt died suddenly near the beginning of the race. Then, as Mackey got close to the finish line, another of his team, Stiffy, suddenly died. The necropsies were inconclusive.
“There is no worse feeling of helplessness,” Mackey said on KNOM-TV. “There’s nothing I could do. And there’s always some doubt. You know, what did I do wrong? How could I have fixed that, or how could I have prevented that?”
Overall evidence suggests that the majority of sled dog racers take great precautions to protect and care for their dogs. Since mushers rarely achieve fame or fortune through dog racing, there would be no motivation for thoughtful racers to abuse their animals.
There are no official statistics regarding the number of dogs to have died running the Iditarod. Unofficial estimates are that at least 140 have died over the race’s 42-year history. The committee running the Iditarod is sensitive to those numbers and the apparent indications that sled racing can harm and ultimately, can kill some dogs. Thus, the Iditarod is involved in ongoing efforts to mitigate racing’s inherent dangers by improving its veterinary care, by creating more check points during the race for improved oversight of the dogs’ health, and by offering greater efficacy of midrace treatment by picking up “dropped” dogs and airlifting them to safety in a timely manner.
Will these efforts resolve the controversy? Probably not. For some, the Iditarod is an historic and uniquely exciting sporting competition; for others it constitutes animal endangerment. The conversation will continue so long as there is an Iditarod … and so long as enough snow falls in the 49th state to run it.
By Lisa Bowman