June 27, 1999
Dear Ms. Gardner:
Thank you for your inquiry about the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) appreciates your concern for the welfare of Iditarod dogs and your compassion for animals. We hope that you find the information below helpful. If you would like additional information, please contact us anytime.
What is the Iditarod?
Every March in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, dozens of dog-and-musher teams race approximately 1,150 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska in pursuit of hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
Competitors’ dogs run a distance roughly equal to that between Los Angeles and Denver, or from New York City to Memphis, in 9 to 14 days. The current speed record is 9 days, 2 hours and 42 minutes, less than half the time it took to run the first Iditarod race in 1973.
Produced by the not-for-profit Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) and sponsored by a host of mostly Alaska-based businesses, the event is promoted as a commemoration of Alaskan culture and heritage. The race is also considered a salute to an approximately 600-mile non-competitive mushing run that brought life-saving diptheria serum to Nome in 1925. This event comprised relay teams, most of which traveled less than 100 miles.
Today’s Iditarod, however, is an international media event featuring
mushers from several countries, many of whom compete in mush races and
breed large kennels of sled dogs for their livelihood. With the annual
cost of putting together a competitive Iditarod team estimated at up to
$60,000, very few native Alaskans are able to participate. Using high-tech equipment and backed by corporate donations, Iditarod mushers tout themselves as sports heroes while forcing their dogs to participate in a race that has witnessed dog deaths and injuries nearly every year since its inception.
Is the event inhumane for the dogs involved?
The HSUS opposes the Iditarod in its current form — or any other mushing event — in which heavy emphasis is placed on competition and entertainment and, yet, dog deaths and injuries are standard features.
The race forces the dogs to run too far and too fast, while dealing with frequently grueling trail and weather conditions, and exacts a severe, and sometimes fatal, toll on dogs’ physical and psychological systems. While the ITC has made some reforms in recent years — such as reducing the maximum size of dog teams from 20 to 16 for better musher control — race organizers continue to mass-market the race and hype the competition among mushers who are continually attempting to break speed records.
The HSUS is not opposed to non-competitive mushing or competitive
mushing events in which the welfare of dogs is not sacrificed for the
sake of entertainment. The HSUS applauds the fun, exercise, and
companionship that dogs and their owners share when the activity does
not result in harm to the animal.
How many dogs have died in the Iditarod?
In most of the 27 Iditarod races, at least one dog death has occurred. The first race is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 15 to 19 dogs. In 1997, the Anchorage Daily News reported that “at least 107 [dogs] have died.” In the three years since that report, seven more dogs have died in the Iditarod, bringing the grand total of dogs who have died in the Iditarod to at least 114.
While there is no official count of dog deaths available for the race’s early years, 29 dogs have succumbed in the race during the last decade (1990-1999).
This year, musher Jeremy Gebauer’s five-year-old dog, Rodman, died after running 650 miles in the race. In 1998, Trim, a five-year-old sled dog in the team of musher Linda Joy, collapsed and died after more than 1,000 miles on the trail, while two other dogs, ages seven and one-and-a-half, collapsed during the race and died after its conclusion.
Official Iditarod press releases about gross necropsies on these dogs provided reasons for the deaths — “complications associated with acute pneumonia” for Rodman and “gastric ulcers, complicated by gastrointestinal blood loss” for Trim — without discussing whether the race might have caused these conditions or exacerbated them so much that they resulted in death. Race rules allow mushers to continue “unless it’s determined the death could have been avoided,” according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Other causes of death during the last decade have included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury from collision, heart failure, and pneumonia.
“Sudden death” and “exertional myopathy,” a condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise,
have also been blamed. Noted by the Anchorage Daily News as the musher
who “led the transformation of the Iditarod from a leisurely 16-day race to a 10-day hotly contested event,” five-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson was disqualified from the 1996 race after his dog died while he mushed his team through waist-deep overflow, a combination of water and frozen slush pooled on the surface of a frozen river. In 1985, a musher was disqualified after he kicked his dog and the animal died. The 1975 winner, Jerry Riley, was banned for life in 1990 after being accused of striking a dog with a snow hook.
Are dogs injured in the race?
At various checkpoints throughout the race, mushers “drop” dogs from
the race when they are either sick, injured, or otherwise unable to continue running. Injuries and ailments that occur during the race include pulled tendons, sore muscles and joints, sore and cut paws, dehydration, heat stress, and diarrhea. Intestinal infections may occur when mushers feed their dogs food contaminated with the bacteria Salmonella; dog food dropped off and left outdoors in Alaskan villages during the race spoils when temperatures rise.
What about veterinary care in the race?
Most Iditarod veterinarians belong to the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA), a group which sponsors the race and whose stated mission is “furthering the cause of the sport of mushing.”
When speaking to the press, Iditarod veterinarians and other officials
frequently make analogies between dogs that die during the Iditarod and
young, healthy human athletes who unexpectedly expire while participating in sports. These comparisons fail to illustrate that dogs, unlike human athletes, have no choice about their participation.
Furthermore, the dogs are unable to signal their discomfort or exhaustion to the mushers whom they are bred to obey, even at the expense of their own health and safety. When tied together with a running team, they risk being trampled if they stop running.
If the Boston Marathon suffered deaths at the same rate as the Iditarod (2.9
deaths per 1,000 participants), 290 human runners would have died
during the last 10 years. Iditarod veterinarians in media interviews dismiss the effects of the race’s conditions and length on the dogs. “If I took 800 dogs in my practice back home, and watched them for two weeks, between three and five of them would probably die” ISDVMA vice president Caroline
Griffiths told the Anchorage Daily News in 1997. The same newspaper
reported in 1998 that “vets say [the death rate of 2.9 dogs per year]
is consistent with what they might expect to see if they kept 1,000
dogs kenneled in one area for a couple weeks” and the Seattle Times
said that “race veterinarians counter that the mortality rate is about what one would expect in a population of more than 1,000 animals exercising 12 hours a day over two weeks.”
These assertions ignore the ITC’s own hype: “You can’t compare it to any other competitive event in the world! A race over 1,049 miles of the roughest…terrain Mother Nature has to offer. She throws jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams.
Add to that the temperatures far below zero, winds that cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod.”
In 1998, ISDVMA president and veterinarian Peter Vanek said, “The stuff that you read about them running themselves to death, or keeling over, is crap.” In contrast, news reports document that sudden Iditarod dog deaths occur despite both appearances of good health until the moment of collapse and clearances through previous race checkpoints.
Iditarod officials often claim that the race’s speed or length cannot be blamed for dog deaths because the deaths sometimes occur in
back-of-the-pack teams or in the early part of the race. These statements fail to acknowledge that not all participating dogs are trained equally and, therefore, slower teams may be expending energy in amounts equal to or greater than those of the front-runners. Moreover, even back-of the-pack teams are moving at rates at which winners traveled just a few years ago.
What happens to Iditarod dogs off the trail?
Unfortunately, the remainder of the year may be bleak for many sled
dogs. The majority of these dogs do not experience lives most Americans would consider appropriate for companion animals. Instead, these dogs are often raised completely outdoors in harsh northern climates in large “dog yards,” where they are confined by tethers with up to 200 other dogs. While the tethers may allow them access to doghouses, they also purposely prevent them from interacting with other dogs.
For humane reasons, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits its licensed dog breeders from using tethering as a primary means of confinement. The HSUS also opposes tethering as a primary means of confinement for dogs.
Nevertheless, the ISDVMA “specifically recommends tethering as the preferred method of sled dog constraints and confinement” and one of Alaska’s two U.S. Senators, Frank Murkowksi, chastised the USDA for its position as similar to those of “radical groups that oppose dog mushing,” saying the USDA’s “implication that [tethering] is inhumane is disturbing to those involved in mushing.”
Those dogs or puppies who prove unable or unwilling to perform may be
killed, a practice known as “culling.” At least two of the 63 mushers who competed in the 1999 Iditarod have openly admitted to culling, according to articles published in the Anchorage Daily News.
During the last several years, some competitive mushers, including Iditarod participants, have been indicted and/or convicted on animal cruelty charges. These situations typically occurred when mushers became financially unable to care properly for the dogs they had amassed.
How can the race continue without substantial changes to ensure a humane, death-free race?
The ITC, the mushers involved, and corporate sponsors of the race all play a role in perpetuating the existence of this race. Through several fundraising efforts, the ITC operates on a budget of approximately $2 million.
In 1995, when The HSUS requested that the Alaska attorney general investigate the Iditarod and enforce the Alaska animal cruelty statute against race organizers and participants, the attorney general declined to prosecute because the state’s law “provides a defense for causing suffering to an animal if the person’s conduct ‘conformed to accepted veterinary practice.’ ” In the same year, the state legalized a “mushing sweepstakes” as a means of generating revenue for the Iditarod.
Substantial marketing efforts are directed at children. The organization routinely markets to grade-school children through special areas of its website and kits sold to schoolteachers; dog deaths and injuries either go unmentioned or receive minimal discussion in these materials. At the same time, some Iditarod mushers lecture to thousands of elementary school children every year to promote themselves and the Iditarod.
Corporate supporters of the race include some of Alaska’s largest businesses, including banks, airlines, shopping malls, newspapers, and
radio stations. Major advertisers seeking a rugged, outdoorsy image for their products and services — including Land’s End clothing distributors, Cabela’s hunting supply business, and Iridium telecommunications company — also have sponsored or promoted the race.
In 1994, after one of Susan Butcher’s dogs died of “sudden death” during the race, the Iams and Timberland companies eliminated their race support.
To placate the race’s critics and retain sponsors, the ITC has made changes to signal its interest in producing a humane event: reducing the maximum size of mushing teams, tightening rules on dog abuse, issuing press releases when dogs die, and adding more veterinarians along the Trail. Indicating that the ITC needs to initiate further changes to ensure a death-free event, dogs continue to die in the Iditarod and mushers push even harder to break speed records.
A 1997 newspaper article on three-time winner Martin Buser, whose 1989 team experienced a dog death due to “internal hemorrhage,” said the musher “wants to accelerate the pace [of the race] even more” and “aims to
train and breed huskies that will sprint all the way.”
What can I do?
The Iditarod is a source of great pride for the people of Alaska and generates tourist revenue and publicity every year. Despite past sponsor withdrawals, the race continues to attract worldwide media attention. Voicing opinions, however, can help protect dogs forced to participate in the Iditarod by letting race organizers and financiers know that greater care should be exercised to effect a death-free race.
Actions that one can take to express concerns about the Iditarod’s
treatment of dogs are:
* Write to elected officials of Alaska, including the state’s governor, its U.S. senators and representative to Congress, and the mayors of
Anchorage and Nome.
* Write to corporate sponsors of the race and the individual mushers. During the 1999 race, this information was available on the official Iditarod website at http://www.iditarod.com.
* Write to Alaska tourism officials.
* Call your child’s teacher if he or she is teaching the Iditarod in class. Inform him or her about the threats dogs face when participating in the race. Contact the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, The HSUS’s youth education division, at (860) 434-8666 for classroom materials that help teach children kindness about humankind’s relationships with animals and the Earth.
* Do not purchase Iditarod memorabilia and discuss your concerns with merchants selling these items.
* Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or call television stations, including networks or local affiliates, when they broadcast a story on the event.
The HSUS thanks you for contacting us about this issue. If you would
like additional information, please write or call me at (301) 548-7789
Robert E. Blizard
Associate, Companion Animal Care
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