Imagine running four marathons a day for 11 days straight. Throw in biting winds, blinding snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. Unthinkable, isn’t it? Yet that’s exactly what dogs in the Iditarod will be forced to do in the next few weeks.
Dogs love to run, but even the most energetic dog wouldn’t choose to run more than 100 miles a day for 10 to 12 days straight while pulling heavy sleds through some of the worst weather conditions on the planet. Along the 1,150-mile stretch, dogs’ feet are torn apart by ice and rocks. Many dogs pull muscles, incur stress fractures or become sick with diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers. Some have died from inhaling their own vomit. The Iditarod—and its cousin, the Yukon Quest—are life-and-death contests, but only for the four-legged participants.
No records were kept in the early days of the Iditarod, but before the start of 1997’s race, the Anchorage Daily News reported that “as many as 34 dogs died in the first two races” and that “at least 107 [dogs] have died” since the Iditarod’s inception. In the 12 years since that report, at least 29 more dogs have died that we know of.
Mushers ride and sleep while dogs pull. In February’s Yukon Quest, two mushers—including four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser—ran out of food for their dogs. Buser fed his dogs reduced rations; the other musher resorted to feeding his dogs melted snow.
Iditarod organizers downplay dogs’ suffering and work to hide abuses from the public. Even when mushers are caught beating dogs, as musher Ramy Brooks was in 2007, they barely receive a slap on the wrist. One of Brooks’ dogs later died, but rather than banning this bully for life, the Iditarod committee will allow Brooks to race again.
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Life for dogs behind the scenes is immeasurably grim. The vast majority of sled dogs live on short chains with only barrels or dilapidated doghouses for shelter. They rarely know a kind word or a gentle touch, much less a belly rub or a warm snuggle on the couch. Dogs who aren’t fast runners, or who simply don’t have the inclination to participate, are discarded like defective equipment.
Just last month, the bodies of several dogs used in a sledding operation were found frozen to the ground in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada. They had been chained, with no protection from the deadly weather as temperatures dipped below 0ºF. Three other dogs were found still alive, also tethered without shelter and in bad shape.
Last February, Montana authorities seized 33 emaciated dogs who had allegedly been abandoned by an Iditarod musher. In March 2005, 11 abandoned sled dogs in Alaska were found after going more than a week without food or fresh water and more than a month in kennels that reeked of feces and urine. Most kennels operate “under the radar” and are never inspected by any regulatory agency.
All over Alaska and Canada, animal shelters are overburdened with abandoned, neglected and surrendered sled dogs. Not every puppy is born a fast runner, and those who don’t make the grade are often dumped. Others are killed outright—by bludgeoning or drowning—for not possessing monumental stamina and speed. Manuals and articles written by top mushers blatantly recommend killing dogs who do not measure up.
The Iditarod isn’t about honoring Alaskan culture or tradition. It’s a quest to win money, a truck and bragging rights. But how can anyone brag about an event that causes so much suffering?