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
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
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
The Sled Dog Action Coalition's web page
http://www.helpsleddogs.org/sponsors.htm 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
Go on to 6th Annual
Compassion For Animals Action Symposium
Return to 20 February 2005 Issue
Return to Newsletters
** Fair Use Notice**
This document may contain copyrighted material, use of which has not been
specifically authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this
not-for-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the
copyrighted material (as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright
Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your
own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright