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The Iditarod’s Trail of Dog Deaths

The Iditarod’s Trail of Dog Deaths

The 37th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a grueling 1,150-mile expedition from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, begins on March 7. Approximately 1,500 dogs will start the race, but, if the past is any indication, many of them won’t finish—a few won’t even survive. At least one or two dogs die during the race each year.

The dogs are treated like snowmobiles with fur and pushed way beyond their limits. Even the most energetic dogs don’t want to run more than 100 miles a day through tough terrain in biting winds, blinding snowstorms, and subzero temperatures for 10 to 12 days straight. Their feet become bruised and bloodied and many dogs pull muscles, incur stress fractures, or suffer from diarrhea, dehydration, pneumonia, intestinal viruses, gastric ulcers, hypothermia, or hyperthermia.

But the dogs have no choice but to run; they’re tethered together and mushers are allowed to whip them. Dogs who become too weak or sick to keep up are dragged along, sometimes flipping on their backs.

Although the exact death toll is unknown since no one kept track in the early years, it’s estimated that more than 136 dogs have perished since the race began in 1973. Dogs have even been gouged by a sled, strangled in towlines, and hit by snow machines. 

Because so many dogs have died, people have come to expect and even accept the deaths as a routine part of the race. Each year, many newscasters calmly report that “the first dog” has died in the Iditarod. A 7-year-old dog named Zaster—who was being treated for symptoms of pneumonia—was “the first dog” to die in the 2008 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Two days after Zaster died, a snowmachiner ran into a musher’s team, killing a 3-year-old dog named Lorne. Soon after, Iditarod officials announced that a 4-year-old dog named Cargo had died on the trail. A pathologist conducted a necropsy to determine the cause of his death, but the results were inconclusive.

Perhaps they’re the “lucky” ones. The surviving dogs continue to suffer well after the races end. Most are kept in cramped kennels or on short chains. They don’t get to retire in comfort. In 2002, researchers at Oklahoma State University examined the airways of 59 dogs 24 to 48 hours after they completed the Iditarod and found that 81 percent of them had abnormal accumulations of mucous or cellular debris in their lower airways. The damage was classified as moderate to severe in nearly half the dogs.

Other dogs suffer without ever even participating in the race. Thousands of dogs are bred for the Iditarod and those who aren’t fast enough to race are usually killed in cruel ways. One musher equated killing dogs who don’t make the grade to weeding a garden.

The Iditarod is so inhumane and exploitative that it has earned the scorn of not only animal protection organizations like PETA, HSUS, and the Sled Dog Action Committee, as well as caring individuals worldwide, but also prominent sports columnists, including USA Today sportswriter Jon Saraceno, who has dubbed the race the “Ihurtadog.”

The “Ihurtadog” is a tourist event. You can help these dogs simply by not going to Alaska, and by letting the race sponsors know that you won’t support their businesses as long as they support cruelty to animals. See the Sled Dog Action Coalition’s Web site for a complete list of sponsors and more information on what you can do to help.

We must not let the Iditarod continue another year. As sports columnist Jeff Jacoby has pointed out, it is true “March madness.”

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206 comments

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4:28PM PDT on Mar 12, 2013

The iditerod must be banned now & forever. If we all raise a stink, it will surely end.

9:17AM PST on Mar 8, 2013

I don't like anything that cause harm to a dog while people have fun.

1:58PM PST on Mar 7, 2013

The race should be about fun. The dogs should have better treatment in the off seasons.

4:15AM PST on Mar 7, 2013

Why is that our loyal friends' ending point?

10:13AM PDT on Jun 6, 2012

This is a pretty inflammatory and generalized article. Unless you yourself have been there to see these alleged acts of cruelty first-hand, unless you have some background in dog-sledding, you probably should avoid making sweeping judgments. My dog is part husky. Only PART, mind you. He got lost in the woods and ended up spending 2 days and 2 nights in a leg hold trap. No shelter. No food or water. Nothing but a patch of ice under his body in the whipping winds of the back end of February. Literally the two coldest nights of the year, and he survived. He is one TOUGH little dog, and I believe he owes it to his breed. Sled dogs prefer the cold, they like competition, and God how they love to pull. Dutch is now 14 years old and I still can't break his leash-pulling habit. I'm all for abolishing cruelty to animals, but that includes the cruelty of not giving them the stimulation they need according to their breed. These are high energy working dogs who LIKE to work. And what's the problem with crating dogs? How many times have I heard how great it is for them? Yes, there needs to be a watchdog in place to ensure the animals are well-cared for and that their welfare does not suffer because of human competition. But at its roots, the race is a worthy tradition.

12:39PM PDT on May 6, 2012

Well damn! I didn't know anything at all about this race and always thought it was just a nice little race the guys ran with their pets through the snow. I am so horrified. I always thought sled dogs were highly regarded and well taken care of. I will never look at them the same way again.

7:45AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

I compare this race to an abortion. No one asks the baby, & certainly no one cares about the dogs. It's all about the owner, whether it be of dogs or another's body. This is pathetic abuse allowed by money hungry & selfish people. There are plenty of reasons to stop this race & those who work toward that goal should be applauded. I shudder to think of these beautiful animals being pushed to the limits for the sake of the Almighty dollar. When will we ever learn that all God's creatures, great & small do not deserve to be abused, especially for entertainment? These dogs should be trained to rescue & treated with the utmost respect for their endurance, not endurance-tested beyond normal limits at the expense of their lives. Once again Alaska is responsible for ANIMAL ABUSE. May a pack of wolves descend upon the owners & sled (slave) drivers. That is if there are any wolves left.

11:59AM PST on Feb 1, 2011

Very sad!

6:49AM PDT on May 5, 2009

I am horrified as humans kill, abuse animals no matter what fashion it maybe. One of the Ten Commandments is not to kill. I just do not understand how people can go ahead kill, abuse etc. animals, then maybe even go to church and pray, pray for what they have done forgiveness. I can't forgive them or anyone that kills helpless, unaware animals. I became an on line activist, signing many pledges. I Hope more people will join me in signing pledges. Humane soceity etc. Petition site is one good site. . I have signed a petition to stop seal slaughter and VICTORY is here finally.

5:13PM PDT on May 4, 2009

I think how those beautiful dogs are treated is digusting, for those of you who think its ok for them to race, ask yourself something, Who asked the Dogs? Its cruel and intolerable and it should be banned NOW.

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