Could Climate Change Actually Be Good News for Iditarod Sled Dogs?
Because of the lack of snow in Alaska this winter, the opening ceremony of the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage had to be shortened from 11 miles to 3 — and even for that, snow had to be shipped in by train from Fairbanks for the first time in the 43 years the race has been held.
About 600 miles of last year’s 1,100-mile Iditarod race had to be rerouted for the same reason: there wasn’t enough snow on the usual course from Anchorage to Nome.
Anchorage usually gets about 60 inches of snow by March 1. But this year, only about 22 inches of snow has fallen. Alaska’s statewide average winter temperature has risen more than 6 degrees over the past 60 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — an increase that is twice that of any of the 48 contiguous states. And those temperatures are expected to continue rising, up to 4 more degrees by 2050.
“Warming in Alaska is already thawing permafrost, decreasing Arctic sea ice, changing ecosystems, and threatening the traditional livelihoods of native Alaskans,” the EPA reports.
As devastating as the effects of climate change will be in Alaska and around the world, there might be an upside for the dogs forced to run the grueling Iditarod each year — if the lack of snow means the end of this annual event.
During this race, sled dogs tethered together run more than 100 miles a day for nine to 14 days across rough terrain in subzero weather. Should they slow down, they are often whipped by the mushers. Dogs too weak to run are dragged along by the other dogs.
“For ‘sled dogs,’ animal cruelty has become a corporate-sponsored industry,” noted the Animal Legal Defense Fund in a 2013 article about the Iditarod.
At least one dog has died in nearly every Iditarod, according to the Sled Dog Action Coalition (SDAC), a nonprofit whose goal is to end this cruel sport. “The first race is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 15 to 19 dogs.”
Since that first Iditarod in 1973, at least 146 dogs have died. The number of dog deaths wasn’t reported during the early years of the race and is still very much kept under wraps, so the count is only an estimate.
“Dead dogs coming into checkpoints can be seen by everyone. But it’s easy to hide the deaths of critically ill dogs who were dropped and immediately removed from the race,” Ashley Keith, a former musher who now rescues sled dogs, told the SDAC.
The horrific causes of dogs’ deaths along the Iditarod course include ”strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure and pneumonia,” the SDAC reports. “‘Sudden death’ and external myopathy, a condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also been blamed.”
One sled dog was kicked to death by his musher. Another musher bludgeoned a sled dog with a sharp snow hook.
It doesn’t get easier for these dogs when the Iditarod is over. Off season, they are kept in small kennels and often chained. And like retired racing greyhounds, once sled dogs are no longer able to mush, they are euthanized (usually by being inhumanely shot in the head, according to the SDAC).
It shouldn’t take climate change to end the suffering of these dogs (and, of course, even if climate change does put an end to this dog suffering, it will still spell disaster for many other species in the world).
Thanks to pressure from organizations like Grey2K USA, greyhound racing has been banned in many U.S. states – as is sled dog racing. It’s time for this cruel sport to be outlawed in Alaska.
Please sign and share this petition calling for the end to the Iditarod.
Photo credit: David Weekly