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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 11 November 2003 Issue

From the Sled Dog Action Coalition
Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People is pro-Iditarod and pro-Yukon Quest. For facts about Iditarod race cruelties visit:  .

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2000--

What if animal rights theory went to the dogs?

Beyond Animal Rights:
A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals
Edited by Josephine Donovan
and Carol J. Adams
Continuum Publishing Co. (370 Lexington Ave.,  New York,  NY  10017),  1996.
26 pages,  paperback.  $18.95.

Yukon Alone:
The World's Toughest Adventure Race
by John Balzar
Henry Holt & Co.
(115 W. 18th St.,  New York,  NY  10011),  1999.  304 pages,
hardcover,  $25.00.

         Many of the authors included in Beyond Animal Rights might
doubt there is any resemblance between their outlook toward animals and that of the participants in the Yukon Quest,  the annual 1,023-mile dog sled race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

         The Yukon Quest is held in colder weather,  during a darker month,  intersecting less often with civilization,  than the better known 1,150-mile Iditarod.  It may be less difficult to win only because the prize money and media notice are less,  attracting fewer of the top professional teams.

         The Beyond Animal Rights authors are mostly vegetarians, academics,  and often tediously intellectual.  Some seem to do little but quote others,  with endless footnotes.  Philosophy professor and horse enthusiast Rita Manning appears to be the only one to spend much time outdoors.

         The Yukon Quest participants by contrast fish,  hunt,  and many trap.  Some may be barely literate.  More than just a few, including the women,  are drawn by the macho image of the Quest, which has never been won by a woman.

         Some Yukon Quest fans,  though not the mushers,  even sneer at the Iditarod as a "sissy race,"  because from 1986 into the mid-1990s it was dominated by four-time winner Susan Butcher, one-time winner Libby Riddle,  and Dee Dee Jonrowe,  who had nine top-10 finishes in 15 tries.

         The women Iditarod contenders helped to introduce a new ethic of gentler dog care and greater accountability--sometimes at their own expense.  Butcher,  a vet tech,   lost her chance at a record fifth victory when she waited out a storm rather than put her dogs at risk.  Streaking past to win was Rick Swenson,  who did not lose a dog until his 20th Iditarod,  and has not lost any dogs since.

         Losses of 20 to 30 dogs per Iditarod were the norm in the 1970s,  when the race was young,  the field was far smaller,  and even winning teams spent twice as long on the trail.  These days the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest each lose under 1% of the 300-500 dogs who start each event.

         Yet despite the dramatic drop in dog losses--which result in part from increased speed,  reducing exposure to the elements--most and probably all of the Beyond Animal Rights authors would agree with the prevailing animal rights view that mushing is inherently exploitive,  abusive,  and unacceptable.

         Yukon Alone author John Balzar,  on the other hand,  is persuaded by experience that the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod are not cruel.  As a "fellow traveler," in both animal rights and mushing circles,  Balzar discusses animal rights with most of the central figures in his first-hand account of the 1998 Yukon Quest,  and finds many of them are at least sympathetic to the point of adopting quirky behavioral inconsistencies.

         Yukon Quest cofounder Joe May,  for example,  was a trapper who had misgivings about the cruelty of his trade.    He gave up trapping any species but marten,  known for preying upon other species caught in traps,  whose pelts fetch a relatively high price. "Then he was invited to a local sled dog race,  and his trapline dogs--surprise--won,"  Balzar recounts.  "May thought,  'I can make a living this way and don't have to kill anything.'"

         Competitor Jimmy Hendrick outspokenly opposes wolf-snaring. "I just don't think one living being should do that to another," Hendrick says.

        "So now the rednecks are after him,"  recounts Balzar.  A neighbor is suspected of deliberately snaring the Hendrick family pet.

         Trapper Wayne Hall,  contrary to local norms,  brings his dog indoors to sleep at his feet.  Hall too compromises with his conscience by trapping only marten.

         "He will not trap foxes or wolves,"  Balzar writes.  "He cannot bear the idea.  He can barely stand trapping at all.  If he could gather and sell mushrooms from under the snowpack,  I believe he would gladly trade his traps for a shovel."

         Another trapper Balzar meets feeds and values ravens as his only friends.

         "Dog mushing may not be cruel,"  Balzar offers,  "but how about trapping animals for fur?  Answer:  it's cruel.  But so is industrial livestock production.  I have drawn my own lines.  I eat meat,  although less than I used to.  I would never wear fur for decoration.  But I have a ruff of raccoon fur on my parka...I wear a hat of beaver fur because it's warm,  and the woman who sold it to me feeds her family off the trapline.

         "My own moral position is entirely indefensible,  of course. Like millions of others,  I hire my killers and don't watch.  That puts me on a lower plane,  I'm afraid,"  than the trappers he interviews.  "And [puts Balzar] many rungs down from my friends at the humane society,  with their vegan diets and canvas shoes.  Odd, isn't it:  these two kinds of people have more in common,  and are less willing to recognize it,  than they do with the remainder of us in the squishy middle.  The trapper and the vegan both live in constant awareness of animals and their suffering."

What this has to do with AR

         Like Balzar,  I see no cruelty inherent in dog sledding and sled racing.  I have never done either,  but I have run thousands of miles cross-country in Quebec winters,  challenging blizzards in mountain footraces of up to 50 miles in length.  I have also run with a half-husky who never tired of running,  even under the worst conditions.  Those who have never been athletes may never understand what drives either human or canine to charge against a 40-mile
an-hour headwind in a whiteout in the middle of nowhere at 30 degrees below zero,  but those who have done it would not trade the experience.

         Unlike Balzar,  I am a lifelong vegetarian.  From having also found and removed countless illegal traplines on my crosscountry training runs,  1977-1989,  I have as much direct experience of trapping as most trappers,  and seriously doubt from it that most trappers--who travel by car and snow machine--give animal suffering any thought at all.

         But dog sledders are different,  because they have to be.  A team of 16 huskies is a formidable pack,  easily capable of eating a musher who fails to command their respect. As all the dogs must be unhooked and fed every two to four hours during a race in order to keep their strength up,  they get plenty of opportunity.  Whether or not a musher is capable of empathizing with any other being,  he or she must understand and bond with the team.

         Beyond Animal Rights explores the inherent contradiction between recognizing the rights of animals and making impositions upon animals which may include sterilizing them and keeping them confined, or asking them to push on past the normal limits of athletic endurance.

         The Beyond Animal Rights authors make no reference to mushing.  Instead,  they discuss abstractly their belief that "the discourse of rights and interests" led since the 1970s by male philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan has failed to appropriately address the practical issues involved in what In A Different Voice author Carol Gilligan in 1982 called women's "conception of morality...concerned with the activity of care, responsibility,  and relationships."

         Beyond Animal Rights editor Josephine Donovan finds especially off-the-point Regan's several essays asserting that the case for animal rights is a matter of application of reason alone, exclusive of emotional considerations.

         Concludes the Beyond Animal Rights introduction,  "In a recent article,  legal scholar Robin West pointed out that 'a community and judiciary that relies on nurturant,  caring,  loving, empathic values rather than exclusively on the rule of reason will not melt into a murky quagmire,  or sharpen into the dreaded specter of totalitarianism."

         That can be debated. Yet endless discussions of whether to save a human or a dog (who is probably the best swimmer in the scenario) if a boat sinks go nowhere,  because they depend upon extending logic to extreme situations,  and have little to do with daily life.

         Declares Brian Luke,  "Animal exploitation thrives not because people fail to care [about animals] but because they do care,"  either deliberately deadening their response to animal suffering so as to go on eating meat,  hunting,  trapping,  or whatever,  or inappropriately responding through self-identification with the animal:  for instance,  by allowing pets to go unaltered and roam at large;  or by abandoning an animal they cannot keep to "give the animal a chance," instead of delivering the animal to a shelter and possible death.

         "An ethic of care would be silent about the abstract right to life,  whether positive or negative,  though it could shed light on particular cases,"  declares Rita Manning.

         What Manning means is that euthanasia,  for instance,  should be considered in terms of quality of life,  not just the right to life--and that is exactly how most people involved in sheltering,  on either the conventional or no-kill side of the fence,  have come to think about it.  The no-kill movement took off in the early 1990s not because of animal rights theorizing,  done mostly by men,  but rather because women got tired of listening to men talk and set out to encourage hands-on work that would actually prevent here-and-now animal suffering.

         For every male no-kill pioneer like Richard Avanzino,  who led San Francisco to no-kill,  there were and are five women like ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett,  Alley Cat Allies founders Louise Holton and Becky Robinson,  Spay/USA founder Esther Mechler, and Doing Things For Animals founder Lynda Foro;  and behind them all were the historical examples of North Shore Animal League founder Elisabeth Lewyt,  who borrowed her late husband's business acumen to introduce high-volume adoption,  and their late friend Alice Herrington,  who as founder of Friends of Animals made the first effort to popularize sterilization surgery.

         "If the animal welfare movement was mine to lead,"  opines Balzar,  placing similar emphasis on the here-and-now over theory, "I would not turn my back on mushers--I'd enlist them as allies.  As a group,  they live closer to dogs and depend more profoundly on dogs than any pet owners I know.  I would continue to keep a wary eye on competitive mushing to prevent any backsliding,  and I'd denounce those who would train dogs by fear,  or those who would cull puppies looking for only the strongest.  And,  again,  I'd enlist mushers as allies."

         If mushers could be persuaded to carry the message about pet overpopulation to Alaska,  more dog-killing could be prevented in a typical week than the sum of all the casualties in all 43 runnings of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

         What if a humane organization sponsored a top musher with a neutered team of ex-shelter dogs in the Iditarod or Yukon Quest? Some former strays have already distinguished themselves in both races;  such a team could even become a contender.  Contending or not,  however,  it would spread the word in the north farther and faster than anything else ever has.

         When the opportunity exists to make allies,  especially among prominent role models within the hunting,  fishing,  and trapping culture of the Far North,  why allow abstractions based on "rights" theory to interfere with what can be done to benefit dogs by building on the commonality of caring?

         In time,  cultivating broader concern for dogs in the Far North should lead to openings for advancing concern for other species--just as occurred in the Lower 48 and elsewhere,  as the humane movement grew from the early focus on human orphans,  horses, and dogs to the present broad concern about all cruelty.  Here, meanwhile,  is an opportunity to start;  and if we learn from past experience,  expanding the cause in the Far North should not take nearly so long.                               --M.C.

Merritt Clifton
P.O. Box 960
Clinton,  WA  98236
E-mail:  [email protected]


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