Good teachers try to bring vitality into their classrooms by using real-life examples to enhance what’s in the curriculum. But just as no conscientious educator would take kids to a strip club for a lesson on “the birds and the bees,” teachers shouldn’t romanticize the Iditarod by having their classes “adopt” a musher. Iditarod organizers offer loads of “educational” materials to schools and encourage classrooms to track the race. Nothing is ever mentioned about the toll that the race takes on dogs. The Iditarod is an event in which dogs routinely suffer, and some even lose their lives. Schools should teach children to denounce cruelty to animals, not glorify it.
The Iditarod is a life-and-death contest—but only for the four-legged participants. The dogs used in this race are forced to run more than 100 miles each day on average. They’re subjected to biting winds, blinding snowstorms, and sub-zero temperatures, and they risk falling through treacherous ice into frigid water. The pads of their feet often become cut, bruised, and worn down by the vast distances of frozen terrain they must cover. Even though the race can take up to two weeks to complete, the official rules require that the dogs be allowed only 40 hours of rest—in total. Most states have laws that prohibit overdriving or overworking animals, but Alaska does not.
Many dogs pull muscles, incur stress fractures, or become sick and suffer from diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses, or bleeding stomach ulcers. Some have even been strangled by tow lines and trampled by moose. And others have succumbed to hypothermia. The official Iditarod rules blithely dismiss some of these deaths as “unpreventable.”
At least 23 dogs have died in Iditarod races since 2004, including 3-year-old Kate, who was allegedly beaten and kicked by her musher because she sat down and refused to get up; Thong, a 3-year-old male, who apparently died of acute pneumonia; and Snickers, a 6-year-old female, who died from an acute hemorrhage caused by a gastric ulcer. In the 2013 race, a dog named Dorado suffocated after being buried in snow and another dog named May got lost on the trail and was missing for a week.
Having children follow the Iditarod can’t be justified as a legitimate history lesson, as today’s cruel race bears no resemblance to the original event that inspired it—an emergency delivery of diphtheria serum. In fact, very few participants are indigenous Alaskans. Winning the Iditarod is all about bragging rights and the cash and new truck that are awarded as prizes.
Kids who care about animals would be devastated to learn that many of the dogs used to race or haul sleds are killed if breeders think they won’t be fast enough. And for the ones who do make the cut, life is often grim. They don’t spend their days snuggled up on the couch or going to the dog park to play—typically, they live on short chains and have only ramshackle pens or overturned barrels for shelter. Some have even been abandoned to starve to death and were later found frozen to the ground. Backyard breeders of these dogs are not inspected by any regulatory agency.
“Adopting” an Iditarod musher may seem like an easy and harmless classroom activity, but teachers would be remiss to take the Iditarod’s promotional materials at face value. Schoolchildren should not be encouraged to become emotionally invested in this cruel tradition, and educators shouldn’t impart the message that running dogs to death is acceptable.
There’s no reason for students and teachers to champion an Iditarod musher, but there are plenty of reasons to teach children about the very real cruelty that’s associated with this race.