Animal Writes
From 20 February 2005 Issue

Facts Show Iditarod Is Barbaric
By Margery Glickman - [email protected]

Billed as the Last Great Race, the reality behind the Iditarod's phony image is enough to make your stomach turn.

The first Saturday in March is the start of Alaska's annual exploitation of dogs in the Iditarod. Alaska law allows dog mushers and the Iditarod to knowingly inflict severe and prolonged pain or suffering on dogs. And that's just what they do every year.

What shocks people is that the carefully constructed image created by the Iditarod promoters and mushers is nothing like the cruel realities the dogs face. When we strip away the hype about the Iditarod, we find a harrowing portrait of people with no trace of compassion. Although the dogs are bred to run, it is shameless cruelty for mushers to force them to race huge distances at peak speeds.

The Iditarod is 1,150 miles, the approximate distance between New York City and Miami, Florida, over a grueling terrain. Mushers now complete the race in 8 to 15 days, less than half the time it took to complete the original Iditarod. The dogs pay a terrible price when their running ability is pushed to these unnatural extremes.

These dogs are not the indomitable animals Iditarod promoters and mushers portray. What happens to the dogs during the race is well documented and includes: death, paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, broken bones, pneumonia, torn muscles and tendons, ruptured discs, diarrhea, vomiting, hypothermia, broken teeth, viral diseases, torn footpads, and lung damage.

Dogs are often sick before the Iditarod starts but are made to race anyway. While some sick dogs are dropped during the race, others are given massive doses of antibiotics to keep them going.

The cruelty quotient is boosted by the fact that mushers, race officials and veterinarians allow the dogs to be whipped. Iditarod winner Dick Mackey wrote in Iditarod Classics, admitting that he and Rick Swenson used whips to drive their dogs across the finish line: "I reached in my sled bag and pulled out a whip just as he glanced around and saw it. So he reached in and pulled out his. And that's the way we came down the street, just driving those dogs for all there was in us."

Stories about the dogs receiving top-notch health care don't square with the facts. At least 122 dogs have died in the race. The dogs who died in the 2004 Iditarod had undiagnosed stomach ulcers, a condition often found in Iditarod dogs. One dog died from blood loss due to ulcers, while the other dog regurgitated and then inhaled his own acidic stomach contents, which caused him to choke to death. Veterinarians and mushers ignored the detectable signs of ulcers--lack of interest in food, severe vomiting and abdominal discomfort.

These two episodes are part of the Iditarod's long, documented history of dog deaths, illnesses, injuries and poor veterinary care. On the average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 81 percent of the dogs who finish the race have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 48.5 percent of the dogs who participate in the Iditarod have ulceration, tissue erosion, gastric hemorrhage, or a combination of these conditions. These figures come as no surprise to people who know that many teams pass through checkpoints without stopping for veterinary physical exams.

The dogs have suffered horribly. There is no accounting of dog deaths in the race's early years and no one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of when sled dogs saved the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. This romantic notion was just publicized at the 2005 Westminster Dog Show. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum delivery was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn't anything like the 1,150 mile Iditarod.

The Iditarod is a morally bankrupt race run by people who won't tell the true story about the cruelties the dogs suffer. The Iditarod a public relations ploy designed to turn mushers into sports heroes, and to line the pockets of mushers, race officials and Alaskan businesses. The salaries of race officials are never disclosed, but we do know that in 2004 the prize pot was $700,000. The race's economic impact for Anchorage (pop. 260,283 per 2000 census), the home of the ceremonial start, is estimated to be well over $5 million. For many mushers, participation in the Iditarod has meant lucrative book deals, advertising contracts, speaker fees and a big boost for their sled dog tour and dog breeding businesses.

When they are not racing, what happens to the dogs in their prison-like puppy mills is enough to make your stomach turn. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. Dogs are very social creatures and chaining keeps them in solitary confinement, unable to touch or interact normally. Tethers make them easy marks for attacks by wolves, coyotes and other animals, and vulnerable to lightning strikes and injuries. Contrary to their natural instincts, the dogs are forced to eat, sleep, urinate and defecate in the same space.

Mushers breed large numbers of dogs to get a handful of good racers. Boosting the cruelty quotient, dogs who aren't good enough to compete or who aren't worth breeding, who are simply unwanted, are routinely shot, clubbed or dragged to death. An article in Alaska's Bush Blade newspaper said that "On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses....."

The Iditarod is not a legitimate sport in which humans do the work. The truth about the Iditarod shows the race to be a crime against animals.

Take Action

The Sled Dog Action Coalition's web page has an extensive list of 2005 Iditarod sponsors and promoters as well as individual musher sponsors. It also has a sample letter, and on the bottom of the page there are email addresses in block form to copy and paste. Please send these organizations letters or emails to protest their involvement with the Iditarod.

Margery Glickman is the director of the Sled Dog Action Coalition, 

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