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 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 1,000 dogs start the Iditarod, but more than one-third are “dropped” 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 less than 50 pounds—are usually tethered to 400-pound sleds in teams of up to 16.5,6 They must run about 100 miles per day, with only 40 hours total of rest mandated throughout the entire eight-to-10-day race.7,8

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 told The Cody Enterprise that he saw dogs with torn Achilles tendons, dehydration, diarrhea, hypothermia, hyperthermia, inflammation in the wrists, and soreness in shoulders from the harnesses.”9

Orlando Sentinel columnist George Diaz wrote that the Iditarod “is nothing more than a barbaric ritual that gives Alaskan cowboys a license to kill.”10 The 2017 race claimed the lives of five dogs, the highest fatality rate only to 2009’s race, when six dogs died.11 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.12,13 Flash, a 4-year-old dog in musher Katherine Keith’s team, died from “acute aspiration pneumonia” which happens when dogs inhale food, liquid or vomit into their lungs.14 Smoke, a 2-year-old from the team of musher Scott Smith, died of hypothermia on a plane after being dropped from the race, while Groovy was killed by a car after he escaped a handler.15,16It 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.17

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.”18 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.19

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
In late 2018 and early 2019, a PETA eyewitness worked in Alaska’s dog sledding industry. He found dogs denied veterinary care for painful injuries, kept constantly chained next to dilapidated boxes and plastic barrels in the bitter cold and biting wind, and exhausted, dehydrated dogs forced to run hundreds of miles. Please visit PETA.org for more about this investigation.

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.”20

At Colorado’s Krabloonik Kennels, the largest tourist dog-sledding operation in the United States, “excess” dogs were routinely shot in the back of the head and buried in a pit. The town’s mayor staunchly defended the operation and brazenly refused to allow advocates to speak at town meetings. Tenacious locals pushed the district attorney to take action, and a surprise inspection resulted in the owner being charged with eight counts of cruelty to animals. The owner sold the operation – which continues today – to like-minded employees.21

Boppy, dog on musher Hugh Neff’s team, died during the Yukon Quest race of aspiration pneumonia, but a necropsy revealed he also suffered “stomach ulcers, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, and severe weight loss and muscle wasting.” Veterinarian Kathleen McGill said, “This dog was already in a low-body state, if you will, trying just to keep itself alive without even running a race,” and Neff was banned from the 2019 Iditarod ““due to concerns over his lack of dog care.”22, 23, 24

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.”25 Saraceno has also written that the race is “shameful marketing carried out on the backs of defenseless animals.”26

In early 2021, Exxon Mobile Corp, one of the largest corporate sponsors of the Iditarod, announced it would pull its financial support after that year’s event.27 State FarmGuggenheim Partners, and Wells Fargo ended their sponsorship of the Iditarod shortly after the race concluded in March, 2017.28 The same year, Sled Dogs—a documentary by director Fern Levitt— was released, which exposed the ugly behind-the-scenes cruelty in the dog-sledding industry. Shortly after that, organizers of the race announced numerous budget cuts—including cutting the following year’s purse by $250,000.29 Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola, Alaska Airlines and Fiat Chrysler also pulled sponsorships.30,31,32

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!  In New York City, the “Idiotarod” features hundreds of human racers who push shopping carts over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.33 Phoenix, Arizona has been running it’s own “Idiotarod” race since 2007.34

References
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.
3Tegan Hanlon, “Number of Dropped Dogs About ‘Normal’ So Far Despite Cold, Iditarod Veterinarian Says,” Anchorage Daily News, 9 Mar. 2017
4Judy Chia Hui Hsu, “Everything Turns to Mush,” The Seattle Times, 5 Jan. 2005.
5Robin Heubner, “The Iditarod Doc: Local Veterinarian To Mark 18th Year Caring for Sled Dogs at Alaska Race,” West Fargo Pioneer,” 20 Feb. 2018.
6Katie Stark, “A Turbulent Year for The Iditarod Gives Birth to A New Era,” Frontiersman, 7 Jul. 2018.
7Michaeleen Doucleff, “Iditarod Sled Dog Race,” Cell 148(2012): 839-841..
8Official Rules 2019,” Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race, accessed 2 Dec. 2018.
9Jami Badershall, “Cody Veterinarian Gets Kick Out of Iditarod,” The Cody Enterprise, 26 Mar. 2004.
10Diaz.
11Leroy Polk,”Cause of Death Identified for Two Dogs Who Died on the Iditarod Trail,” KTUU, 17 Mar. 2017.
12Jennifer Viegas, “At 2009 Iditarod, Dog Deaths Stir Controversy,” Discovery News, 25 Mar. 2009.
13Yereth Rosen, “Iditarod Ends, Critics Seek Inquiry Into Dog Deaths,” Reuters, 25 Mar. 2009.
14Leroy Polk, “Cause of Death Identified for Two Dogs Who Died on The Iditarod Trail,” KTUU, 17 Mar. 2017.
15Iditarod Live Blog for Saturday, March 11: Dog That Died in Plane May Have Overheated,” Alaska Dispatch News, 2 Dec. 2017.
16After Returning to Anchorage, Iditarod Sled Dog Hit by Vehicle and Killed,” KTUU, 13 Mar. 2017.
17Saraceno, “Grueling Iditarod Not Even Fit for Dogs.”
18Bod Padecky, “Victims of Cold, Fatigue, and Greed,” The Press Democrat, 20 Mar. 2004.
19M.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.
20Greg Cote, “Iditarod, Hailed as Greatest Dog Race? Call It Grotesque Shame, Animal Abuse,” The Miami Herald, 5 Mar. 2002.
21Christopher Osher, “Aspen-area Dog-Sledding Operation Sparks Concerns, Investigation,” the Denver Post, 7 Dec. 2013.
22Final Necropsy Report on Boppy, Hugh Neff’s Dog,” Yukon Quest, 24 Apr. 2018.
23Tegan Hanlon, “Yukon Quest Bans 2-time Champ from 2019 Race after Examination of Dead Dog,” Anchorage Daily News, 24 Apr. 2018.
24Madeline McGee, “Hugh Neff Barred from 2019 Iditarod Amid Concerns over Dog Care,” Anchorage Daily News, 30 Nov. 2018.
25Saraceno, “As Death Toll of Dogs Rises, So Does Iditarod’s Insanity.”
26Saraceno, “Iditarod No More Than Dog Abuse,” USA Today, 5 Mar. 2001.
27Yereth Rosen, “Iditarod Sled-dog Race Losing Exxon Support Amid Animal-rights Pressure,” Reuters, 22 Jan. 2021.
28Rachel D’Oro, “Major Sponsor Pulls Support From Alaska’s Iditarod Race,” Associated Press, 25 May 2017.
29Tegan Hanlon, “Cash-strapped Iditarod Cuts Purse for 2018 Race by About $250,000,” Alaska Dispatch News, 22 Sep. 2017.
30Rachel D’Oro, “Longtime Sponsor of Iditarod Cuts ties with Alaska Race,” Associated Press, 27 June 2018.
31Jason Owens, “Dogs Quit on Iditarod Leader When Musher Yells at One of His Animals,” Yahoo News, 11 Mar. 2019.
32Mark Thiessen, “Norwegian Musher Achieves Boyhood Dream, Wins Iditarod Race,” Associated Press, 18 Mar. 2020.
33Ben Yakas, “Idiotarod, The Glorious Annual Gathering Of Costumed Idiots, Happening This Month,” Gothamist, 11 Jan. 2019.
34Benjamin Leatherman,”The Phoenix Idiotarod Is the Best Local Event You’ve Never Heard Of,” Phoenix New Times 4 Feb. 2020.

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“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind