Iditarod Dog Handler’s Heartbreaking Dying Wish: PETA, Free the Dogs

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4 min read

A love of dogs led “River Mike” Cranford to become a “handler,” helping out Iditarod mushers at their kennels. A love of dogs also made him quit.

River Mike became an advocate working to shut down the deadly race. From his deathbed, he contacted PETA with one last request: End the Iditarod and free the dogs.

Like most people, River Mike was misled by the glossy portraits of Iditarod mushers hugging their dogs. Getting to work with dogs and be outdoors seemed like the perfect job. But excitement turned to despair as he witnessed pervasive and disturbing cruelty at multiple kennels.

“[At one] kennel I worked at, the manager would walk through the dog yard with his pistol shooting dogs for fun. He thought it was great sport.”


“As a new handler with about two weeks of experience, walking through the dog lot with the main handler, I pointed to a dog and said, ‘That’s a funny looking dog.’ I found the dog shot, still at his house on his chain.”


“Culling unwanted dogs is an on-going mushers’ practice, and one racer had numerous pits full of dead dogs, from puppies to oldsters—some skinned for parka ruffs and mittens!”


“On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats, and if they don’t pull, [they’re] dragged to death in [the] harness. (Imagine being dragged by your neck-line at 15 miles per hour while suffering a major heart-attack!)”

River Mike took part in the industry exposé Sled Dogs, revealing what he had seen firsthand. And he started joining PETA at protests of the Iditarod and working with us to end the death race.

LIVE FROM ALASKA: Activists including ‘Sled Dogs’ director Fern Levitt and former handlers-turned-whistleblowers are taking a stand at the start of the deadly Iditarod dog sled race.

Posted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on Saturday, March 3, 2018

The industry breeds thousands of dogs each year for sled races. Those who don’t make the cut are often kept tethered and chained for most of their lives or confined to factory farm–style pens, some with nothing more than dilapidated plastic crates for shelter in subzero temperatures. Some have frozen to death, and others have died after eating rocks. Many more are shot, bludgeoned, or abandoned to starve. As River Mike explained, some dogs are killed simply for having the wrong color of paw pads.

During the race, they’re expected to run more than 1,000 miles through extreme weather conditions—including on ice and through biting wind and blinding snowstorms—in less than two weeks. Race rules only require that they get 40 hours of rest over the entire span of the race. Many dogs’ feet become bruised, cut, or swollen, and the animals often develop bleeding stomach ulcers and pull or strain muscles. A total of 350 dogs were pulled out of the 2018 Iditarod—likely because of exhaustion, illness, or injury. A necropsy report for Blonde—a dog who died after being pulled from the race—revealed that his death was consistent with aspiration pneumonia, meaning that he probably choked to death on his own vomit from being forced to run excessively hard, the leading cause of death for dogs who die in the Iditarod.

River Mike left the Iditarod behind, but before he left, there was one last thing that he needed to do. He had promised a dog named Mike that when he left, he would take the pup with him. As he revealed in Sled Dogs, “I wanted Mike because they had told me how much they had beat him and how …. It’s hard for me to talk about him. He had been totally broken. Mind and spirit, just, totally.”

River Mike kept his promise and took the abused dog, who spent the rest of his life cared for, happy, and loved. Now, PETA intends to keep our promise to River Mike and shut this race down. You can help by urging companies that have not yet ended their sponsorship of the Iditarod to join the many that have pledged to save dogs.

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