RE: Want to run the Iditarod? You’ll need a lot of scratch (03/18/15) 

I cringed the instant I heard the lead in… National Public Radio’s Marketplace… going to the dogs. And there it came, another “poor musher” pitch on behalf the Iditarod. Of course I wouldn’t have expected “mushing correspondent” Emily Schwing to explore WHY sponsorship money is so hard to come by these days – but it is something worth considering. Maybe the Iditarod is dying off for a reason… and IT’S ABOUT TIME! 

The Iditarod is inherently cruel and abusive. When I think about the commercial sled dog industry, one thing comes to mind – CHAINS – tens of thousands of chains. Each chain attached to a dog spinning in circles, who, more than likely would prefer to run free in the yard and sleep warm in the house. If only we could ask them to counter the spin.

I have a neighbor who built a mega-kennel of 125 dogs behind my homestead. All night and day I hear their sporadic howls, through months of -40F followed by months of rain and relentless mosquitoes, the dogs hang out on their chains while their owner sits in a log mansion and blogs about the depth of the many holes they have excavated in his lot (Gaelach Mor Kennel Blog). 

This is one of the nicest kennels in the state, really. 

Kennels of this magnitude represent the upper echelon of the Iditarod, typically referred to as the “top ten.” In reference to the high costs of maintaining a kennel this large, Schwing reports that Jeff King cut his numbers down from “owning” over 100 dogs to “working with” thirty-five. 

This statement is completely untrue and she knows it. One can see for them self how many puppies (and yuppies) are at Jeff King’s kennel in this brief (45 sec) video, filmed by one of the thousands of tourists who visit it every year: Husky Homestead Tour – Holland America Line. 

Consider the economics. King charges $59 per person ($39 for children 12 and under) for a 2.5 hour kennel tour. He gives 3-4 tours a day, over a 130 day summer season, with people literally pouring in by the busload. Add in what they throw down for incidentals like photographs and souvenirs, and Jeff is probably raking in close to $10K per day from his tour business alone. 

So that accounts for the yuppie side of the equation…now what’s going on with all those puppies? A fairly common musher attitude is that summer is the time to “get busy.” A huge operation like that could produce upwards of 100 pups a year…and would have to in order to assure that there were enough available to keep the visitors happy. Maybe what Jeff meant was that he is only breeding 35 of his dogs these days – and the rest are selling like hotcakes.  

In a 2009 entry in Jeff King’s blog, he indicates he is selling off his “bumper crop” of dogs for prices ranging from $250 to $1250 (generally these have the added benefit of being cash transactions). That’s the cost of dog that shows potential. A well seasoned dog might go for $5K and a champion leader could fetch upwards of $20K. The value of the dog is largely based on the success of musher. A “junk” dog from a winning kennel is more valuable than a “good” dog from someone no one has ever heard of, giving Jeff a strong advantage in the industry. 

If Jeff King is downsizing his kennel, I seriously doubt it is because he can no longer keep pace financially. More than likely he’s just getting old. 

Jeff King however is not the average Iditarod musher – he is more like the 1% – and certainly an odd choice to interview about financial hardship. The income disparity between a mega-kennel like his versus the average Iditarod kennel is dramatic. Most kennels generate no income but rather have a host of expenses associated with maintaining them. What often begins as a romantic vision of Iditarod fame, so too often, ends in tragedy for the dogs. 

Cases like this pop up every year: Iditarod musher is overspent, overwhelmed and embarrassed or unwilling to seek assistance. They know they couldn’t give their dogs away if they tried so they latch onto the idea that somehow keeping them alive under such deplorable circumstances is a better alternative. The dogs wind up starving on their chains until someone finally gets brave enough to call in the authorities…often after having waited too long. Most offenders are portrayed as victims and are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. 

While individual mushers typically rally to assist with rescue operations, the Iditarod race committee offers nothing in the way of financial resources to support either failing or aspiring race participants. Which is odd, in a way, because the Iditarod is a charity with tax-exempt 501 status – even more bizarre given its ultra corporate nature.

That aside, it is clear from Iditarod tax documents, that, were they not a charity, they would likely be out of business. It works out well for them and their big corporate sponsors – like Exxon and Chrysler – who make tax deductible contributions to the race in exchange for an extraordinary amount of free advertising, also donated, by the Alaska Dispatch News (an invariable hub of Iditarod propaganda). 

There are many additional ways in which taxpayers are subsidizing the Iditarod. In 2012 the Iditarod asked the State of Alaska for $1 million dollars to fight sled dog advocates like myself. And though we are devoted and determined to improve conditions for the dogs, there are only a handful of us, operating with no budget, who actually speak out against the abuse. So the state only gave them $100K toward their plight, in addition to providing thousands of dollars a year to pay for trail grooming activities. 

On a municipal level the race is also being heavily subsidized. The City of Anchorage estimates its costs for hosting the event in excess of $75K per year. That money covers the cost of putting snow back onto the streets (that the city had already paid to remove) and providing additional police officers to barricade roads and direct traffic. 

The unincorporated community of Willow, where the official race start occurs most years, charges the Iditarod $6K for the use of its community center over Iditarod weekend, an event which attracts people from around the world. This amount of money would hardly cover costs associated with plowing out the parking lots, were those services not being donated as well. 

Then everyone in Willow, and in every town along the race route, is solicited to volunteer for the event, because the race wouldn’t happen without them. What thanks does Willow get for their hospitality? Try months of waiting for that payment. Typically the Iditarod settles up by the middle of the summer – when the next year’s race entry fees start filtering in – because they have NO MONEY! 

Finally, Iditarod entitlement would not be complete without some notable contributions from the federal government. When federal TARP dollars became available, the Bureau of Land Management allotted $800K to construct four little cabins along the race route that see one or two weeks of traffic per year. But the real pork is coming from the Pentagon, in the form of million dollar DARPA grants, to fund defense-related sled dog research. 

Many of the “winning” kennels participate in the DARPA research, in fact a kennel must be considered competitive to qualify. I’m sure the additional funding, and state of the art whatever-it-is-that-they’re-up-to, has its advantages both on and off the race course, further widening the gap between the big winners and the big losers. Martin Buser, Aliy Zirkle, Jake Burkowitz, Rick Swenson, Zack Steer and Mike Santos are just few of the mushers who have cashed in on the DARPA dollars.  

So who in fact is the big loser in this whole equation? Not the Iditarod race director!!! Stan Hooley paid himself just shy of $113K in 2012. No, sadly, it is the dogs are that paying the highest price for the Iditarod. Many of them wind up chained to a stake for the their entire life, that is, if they are not lucky enough to be shot to the head. And that’s no joke. Pretty much all the major kennels have pits filled with dog shit and dead dogs hidden on the property and culling is the industry standard. The reason the Seavey dogs have such strong bloodlines is because they cull every single dog that isn’t fully committed to the pull and only breed the best.  

In that sense, it is true that these dogs are bred to run…but it is not true that ALL sled dogs love to run. I acquired an Iditarod survivor in fact that hated to run. Originally bred by Zach Steer, Topaz was sold to author Gary Paulsen who ran the Iditarod in the 1980’s and wrote a novel about it, only to make a brief return to mushing 20 years later. But shortly after re-entering the sport, Gary changed his tune. He left his 40 his dogs behind and returned to sailing around on his yacht.

On my only visit to Gary’s kennel, I was traumatized by witnessing the condition of this very desperate dog, covered with open sores from being dragged in his harness. He was so emaciated, sad and sick that he could hardly walk. I wound up taking him home. 

And that’s how it happens – some sucker winds up falling in love with a broken dog and both of their lives are changed forever. I too, wound up paying to pick up the pieces of another Iditarod kennel. After many months of rehabilitation, Topaz learned how to love and be loved, and how to behave like “normal” dog after what had obviously been a very traumatic life on a chain. He was thrilled with the idea of sleeping in a warm house and running free in the yard, but for the most part he never left my side. 

While Gary Paulsen should be held fully accountable for the terrible things he did to Topaz, it is only because of the Iditarod that he acquired a lot full of forty dogs. And it is only because of the media, and its relentless pro-Iditarod propaganda, that Gary was even mushing at all. He didn’t even make it to the first checkpoint, but I’m sure the all the free press leading up to that point made it well worth his investment. As for me, I got to spend an amazing three years caring for and paying for his reject dog, who turned out to be one of the most amazing animals I have ever known. 

I would be very surprised if Emily Schwing isn’t already aware of what goes on behind the “scenes” of the Iditarod (she should be because I’ve contacted her about this subject before) and is knowingly concealing the truth. Either way, she’s not doing her job. And neither is NPR. 

 Printed in the Alaska Dispatch News (03/19/15) 

‘Iditarod evolves into barbaric event fueled by greed, Outside money’

When are people going to wake up and recognize the Iditarod for the abusive event that it is? It’s hard to even characterize the absurdity of it all. Wyatt, a healthy 3-year-old dog on Lance Mackey’s team, dies abruptly for no apparent reason and Lance, who admits he is unable to even put booties on the feet of his remaining dogs without assistance, races on into temperatures lower than minus 45 degrees. And we are supposed to feel sorry for him? 

Meanwhile Brent Sass … in contention for a winning finish … is disqualified for confusing his iPad for an iPod? What’s really going on here? 

The Iditarod has evolved into a barbaric event fueled by greed and Outside money. Today’s race is a far cry from the days when a dog team was used for transportation and a musher kept only as many dogs as could comfortably fit in his cabin on a cold night. In no way is it commemorative of the heroic efforts of the 1925 serum run. And even though it doesn’t often make the news, there are in fact many intelligent people and reputable organizations throughout Alaska and North America who oppose the race. If you care about dogs you should join them. 

Maybe when Lance finishes this Iditarod, instead of heading to his warm cabin to recuperate, he should chain himself to Wyatt’s old house and really feel what it’s like to be a washed-up old dog that won’t make next year’s team. Then perhaps he can contemplate how to bring meaningful change to the future of his sport — if you could even call it that. 

 R.I.P. Wyatt …We know you ran your heart out. 

 — Laura Stine 

Maybe that has something to do with why Lance Mackey can’t keep his sponsors and can’t find an American company willing to pay for his dog food.  

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