The Chilling Truth About Iditarod Cruelties

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The Chilling Truth About Iditarod Cruelties

By Margery Glickman, Help Sled Dogs
September 2008

The Iditarod is a nightmare for dogs. In this race, which is held every March, mushers compete to win prizes by forcing the dogs to run more than 1,000 miles at ever increasing speeds. While their dogs haul them mile after grueling mile over a punishing terrain in the piercing cold of Alaska, mushers routinely sit on comfortable sled seats.

What happens to the dogs during this 8 to 16-day marathon include death, paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads, sprains and anemia.

At least 130 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no way to know exactly how many have died in the race, because there are no records for the race's early years. There is also no accounting of how many dogs die in training or after each Iditarod.

On average, 52 percent of the dogs who start the Iditarod do not make it across the finish line. According to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (Sep 2002), of those who do finish, 81 percent have lung damage. The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Jan-Feb 2005) reported that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

Iditarod veterinarians are complicit in the race's culture of cruelty. Paula Kislak, DVM, President of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) says, "Veterinarians who support the cruel treatment of Iditarod dogs violate the fundamental principle of veterinary medical ethics that mandates them to relieve animal suffering, and, above all, do no harm."

The dogs are often sick, but veterinarians allow them to race anyway. A chief Iditarod veterinarian even published a musher/veterinary handbook advising mushers on how to avoid having prohibited substances detected in pre-race veterinary checks.

Iditarod veterinarians do not monitor the dogs continuously during the race. Mushers often breeze through checkpoints in under five minutes, making it impossible for vets to give the dogs physical exams or even the briefest visual checks.

Even when they are examined, some veterinarians have a history of ignoring or not caring about the symptoms of sick and injured dogs. For example, in the 2006 Iditarod, Noah Burmeister told the vets at the Rainy Pass checkpoint that his dog Yellowknife wasn't feeling well. They examined Yellowknife and couldn't find anything wrong. Burmeister left Rainy Pass with Yellowknife pulling his sled. The dog died before reaching the next checkpoint. The gross necropsy showed that Yellowknife died of acute pneumonia. In the 2005 Iditarod, Rick Swenson arrived at the Rainy Pass checkpoint at 17:56 with 16 dogs and told the vets that the dogs had picked up a virus. Nevertheless, the vets allowed Swenson to leave the checkpoint at 18:00 (four minutes later) with all 16 dogs.

Iditarod veterinarians give the dogs massive doses of antibiotics to keep them moving. For instance, The Anchorage Daily News reported, "[Musher] Lindwood Fiedler opened the dog's mouth and fed it antibiotics to fight an infection. 'Better mushing through pharmacy,' he quipped." The newspaper also quoted musher Aliy Zirkle as saying "It was my first Iditarod; I had to finish the ding-dang thing. The dogs all had fevers. The vets gave them a powerful antibiotic."

The dogs are subjected to other deliberate acts of cruelty. Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, has reported that many of the dogs are beaten into submission: "They've had the hell beaten out of them... You don't just whisper into their ears, 'OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.' They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying." "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death." (Jon Saraceno's column in USA Today, March 3, 2000.)

Mushers believe in "culling" or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. "Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses....." wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

The Iditarod is a perfect example of human cruelty to animals. For the dogs, the next Iditarod will be another bottomless pit of torment.


Margery Glickman is the founder of Sled Dog Action Coalition.

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