Now that the last dog has crossed the finish line, Iditarod organizers are rushing to patch up "The Last Great Race's" tattered reputation after three dogs died and a veteran musher, Ramy Brooks, was disqualified from this year's race. Witnesses caught Brooks beating his dogs, one of whom later died. Unfortunately, the Iditarod Trail Committee seems more concerned with putting a positive spin on this year's abysmal events than with penalizing Brooks, who as of now is still free to compete in future races.
The committee should come to terms with the fact that the race in its current form is inevitably lethal to dogs and should be stopped.
In the Iditarod, dogs race approximately 1,150 miles, roughly the distance from New York City to St. Petersburg, Fla., over a grueling terrain in eight to 16 days. They often run more than 100 miles a day—the equivalent of four marathons back-to-back—with few (and brief) intervals of rest. They are subjected to biting winds, blinding snowstorms, sub-zero temperatures and falls through treacherous ice into frigid water.
Their feet become bruised, bloodied, cut by ice and just plain worn out because of the vast distances they cover. Many dogs pull muscles, tendons and ligaments, rupture discs, incur stress fractures and become sick with bloody diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers. Dogs have been strangled by tow lines, trampled by moose and hit by snowmobiles and sleds. One dog in this year's race became lost in a snowstorm and was missing for 11 days.
At least 133 dogs have died in the Iditarod since records started being kept—and that doesn't include dogs who die in training or after the race ends. One dog in this year's race died of "acute pneumonia" and another from internal bleeding from a ruptured ulcer, two common causes of death for Iditarod dogs. According to the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have developed gastric ulcers. The study's authors concluded that the ulcers are caused by "sustained strenuous exercise." Dogs suffering from ulcers may bleed to death or choke to death after regurgitating and then inhaling their own vomit.
On average, more than half of the dogs who start the race don't make it across the finish line and 81 percent of those who do finish have lung damage, according to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Sick or injured dogs are frequently given massive amounts of medication to keep them running. Mushers often spend just minutes at checkpoints, making it impossible for veterinarians to give the dogs thorough physical exams.
The cause of death for the dog belonging to Ramy Brooks has yet to be determined, but it is likely that her death was a direct result of being forced to run too far too fast. Brooks reportedly beat his team after they lay down on an ice field and refused to go any further. Iditarod apologists describe the beatings as "spankings," but this euphemism implies that the dogs had done something to deserve being whacked with a stick (and kicked and punched, as some witnesses allege), when in all likelihood they were simply too exhausted to go any further.
Shockingly, Alaska State Troopers, when asked by PETA to investigate the beatings, refused, saying that "by our statutes" the abuse "doesn't warrant an investigation." There is something desperately wrong with Alaska's cruelty laws if beating exhausted dogs isn't illegal. In fact, the Iditarod itself would be illegal in most of the lower 48 states, which have laws that bar "overworking" and "overdriving" animals. It's high time that Alaska entered the 21st century and stopped turning animal abuse into a competitive sport.
Jennifer O'Connor writes for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingAnimals.com.