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.”