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Sled Dog Racing: Death on the Trails

Imagine “racing your dog from Orlando to New York, depriving him of sleep to complete the course as quickly possible, mushing though waist-deep water and ice, with the dog losing about 10 pounds through the ordeal.”1 Or consider tethering yourself “to 15 other runners on a 50-foot gangline while pulling 400 pounds. Imagine flipping on your back and being dragged down an icy incline.”2 That’s how two sports columnists have described the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a grueling expedition from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, which takes place every March. It’s only one of several such races in which mushers, or dogsled drivers, compete for thousands of dollars and other prizes. Meanwhile, the dogs, viewed as little more than snowmobiles with fur, are lucky if they finish the race alive and without serious injuries.

The Most Notorious of Races
About 1,500 dogs start the Iditarod, but more than one-third are flown out every year because they become sick, injured, or exhausted from being forced to run for hours through jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, and desolate tundra in biting winds, blinding snowstorms, and temperature fluctuations from 40 degrees above to 60 degrees below zero.3,4 The dogs—usually husky mixes weighing only 40 to 45 pounds—are usually tethered to 400-pound sleds in teams of 15. They must run about 125 miles per day, often racing as many as six hours at a time, with just a few hours’ sleep each day.5,6 The race can take nine to 14 days.7

The dogs’ feet become bruised and bloodied, cut by ice, and just plain worn out from the tremendous stretch of ground that they cover. Many pull muscles, incur stress fractures, or become sick with intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers. In his capacity as a volunteer veterinarian for the race, Scott Moore “saw dogs with torn Achilles tendons, dehydration, diarrhea, hypothermia, hyperthermia, inflammation in the wrists, and soreness in shoulders from the harnesses.”8

Orlando Sentinel columnist George Diaz wrote that the Iditarod “is nothing more than a barbaric ritual that gives Alaskan cowboys a license to kill.9 ”Six dogs died during the 2009 race, but normally at least one or two dogs die every year and the causes range from strangulation in towlines to internal hemorrhaging to being trampled by moose or suffering from liver injuries, heart failure, and pneumonia.10,11 Wolf, a 5-year-old dog in musher Lance Mackey’s team, died when he regurgitated food and choked on it.12 Takk, a 7-year-old dog on musher Kjetil Backen’s team, died of blood loss associated with gastric ulcers.13It has been estimated that the Iditarod death rate is 2.9 fatalities for every 1,000 competitors; if the Boston Marathon suffered deaths at the same rate, 290 human runners would have died in the races during the 1990s.14 At least 120 dogs have died during the Iditarod since 1973, and that does not include dogs who died after the race.15

Even if dogs survive a race, they may die afterwards. Dr. Paula Kislak, president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, has stated, “With a buildup of lactic acid and other chemicals from muscle degradation as a result of extreme exercise, toxicity in the liver and kidneys may not cause death for days or weeks after a race.”16 A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that of 59 dogs who were examined 24 to 48 hours after a race, 81 percent had “abnormal accumulations” of mucous or cellular debris in their lower airways. Further, the lung damage was classified as moderate to severe in nearly half of the dogs.17

There are other grueling and deadly endurance races that are not as well publicized, including the Copper Basin 300, the Race to the Sky long-distance dogsled races, and the Yukon Quest international dogsled race.

Suffering Behind the Scenes
Most dogs live in cramped kennels that are usually not inspected by any regulatory agency. Kennel operators often keep dogs tethered on short ropes or chains or confined to tiny spaces. Margery Glickman, a retired elementary-school teacher who founded the nonprofit Sled Dog Action Coalition, was vacationing in Alaska and happened upon a “dog lot,” where more than 200 animals were being raised to race in the Iditarod. “I found the conditions horrific,” Glickman told The Miami Herald. “The dogs live tethered permanently on these short leashes.”18 Nearly 30 malnourished dogs were seized from David Straub, who has run the Iditarod three times. Straub was charged with 17 counts of cruelty to animals, and the dogs were confiscated.19

At the largest tourist dogsledding operation in the U.S., Krabloonik Kennel in Aspen, Colorado, as many as 35 dogs have been killed annually by a gunshot to the head, according to a former employee.20 Krabloonik’s office manager defended the killings, saying, “[Culling dates] back hundreds of years. This is nothing new. … This is part of the circle of life for the dog-sled dog.”21

Profiting From Pain and Misery
Like any other tourist attraction, the motive of the Iditarod and similar races is money. USA Today sportswriter Jon Saraceno, who dubbed the race the “Ihurtadog,” reported, “The economic impact to Anchorage, site of the ceremonial start, is estimated at more than $5 million. … The dogs, of course, get their usual take. More suffering.”22 Saraceno has also written that the race is “shameful marketing carried out on the backs of defenseless animals.”23

Sponsors of the Iditarod have included Cabela’s, Wells Fargo, GCI, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Center, Anchorage Daily News, Fred Meyer, Millennium Alaskan Hotel, and PenAir. In recent years, however, the race has lost major sponsors such as Chevron, and the Discovery Channel stopped airing a documentary series about the race.24

What You Can Do
Do not patronize the Iditarod or other dogsled races or tourist attractions that include dogsled rides. If you are planning a trip to Alaska, be sure to let your travel agent know that you do not want any packages that include dogsled rides. Let sponsors of dogsled races know that you don’t support businesses that involve such cruelty.

Support human sled races! Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, hosts the National Human Dogsled Championship in February as part of its annual WinterFest, in which dozens of teams of humans dress up in crazy costumes and race for the finish line.25 In New York City, the “Idiotarod” features some 500 human racers who push shopping carts over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.26

1George Diaz, “Iditarod Dog Deaths Unjustifiable,” Orlando Sentinel, 5 Mar. 2000.
2Jon Saraceno, “Grueling Iditarod Not Even Fit for Dogs,” USA Today, 3 Mar. 1999.
3Mike Brassfield, “Sledding in the Sunshine,” St. Petersburg Times, 5 Jan. 2003.
4Judy Chia Hui Hsu, “Everything Turns to Mush,” The Seattle Times, 5 Jan. 2005.
5Judy and Richard Schiller, “Sled Dogs and Mushers,” Crooked Creek Observer, 11 Feb. 1997.
8Jami Badershall, “Cody Veterinarian Gets Kick Out of Iditarod,” Cody Enterprise, 26 Mar. 2004.
10Jennifer Viegas, “At 2009 Iditarod, Dog Deaths Stir Controversy,” Discovery News, 25 Mar. 2009.
11Yereth Rosen, “Iditarod Ends, Critics Seek Inquiry Into Dog Deaths,” Reuters, 25 Mar. 2009.
12Joel Gay and Craig Medred, “Leader’s Dog Dies on Trail,” Anchorage Daily News, 15 Mar. 2004.
13Mark Nordman, Iditarod XXXII Advisory, 14 Mar. 2004.
14Saraceno, “Grueling Iditarod Not Even Fit for Dogs.”
15Saraceno, “As Death Toll of Dogs Rises, So Does Iditarod’s Insanity,” USA Today, 14 Mar. 2004.
16Bod Padecky, “Victims of Cold, Fatigue, and Greed,” The Press Democrat, 20 Mar. 2004.
17M.S. Davis et al., “Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs as a Model of ‘Ski Asthma,’” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 166 (2002): 878–82.
18Greg Cote, “Iditarod, Hailed as Greatest Dog Race? Call It Grotesque Shame, Animal Abuse,” The Miami Herald, 5 Mar. 2002.
19Heidi Loranger, “Starving Dogs Recovering at Shelter,” KTVA 11, 20 Oct. 2004.
20Associated Press, “Killing Techniques Being Questioned at Dog Sledding Operation Near Aspen,” 5 Apr. 2005.
21Chad Abraham, “Krabloonik Defends Culling of Pack,” The Aspen Times, 5 Apr. 2005.
22Saraceno, “As Death Toll of Dogs Rises, So Does Iditarod’s Insanity.”
23Saraceno, “Iditarod No More Than Dog Abuse,” USA Today, 5 Mar. 2001.
24Sarah Maslin Nir, “Lean Times for a Wilderness Race,” The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2010.
25Walter Roessing, “Lowell Race Is Doggone Funny,” The Boston Herald, 27 Jan. 2005.
26Valerie Fuchs, “Madness, Sabotage, and a Cart Race Across NYC,” Washington Square News, 31 Jan. 2005.