Having been fascinated by animals since I was a child and reveling in each story I heard of remarkable animals and their achievements, some of the stories that I found the most intriguing were those of sled dogs of the great white north.
The way the stories were always related were that of dogs who loved to pull, push and run with the sled.
Being aware of so much cruelty against animals by humans, even as a child, I felt true comfort in the thought of a symbiotic relationship between the sled musher and the dogs in his team. The picturesque beauty of two species working together with a common interest and sharing in the enjoyment equally was one of the shining lights for me in a world where I witnessed so much dominance and abuse from stronger species to those placed below them.
I read often and deeply into mushing and the lifestyle of running sled dogs, but having grown up in the southern US where snow was a rarity rather than the norm, the dream of being part of a sled dog team, as I imagined the musher to be, remained just that: a dream.
The romantic notions of sled dogs and mushing were reinforced to me, like many children and adults, by popular films depicting happy and willing dogs with their beloved and loving sled musher. I went on believing this fairytale for years until I found myself in the interior of Alaska and faced with the harsh reality of true sled dog culture.
I had taken a job on a resort 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska and although it was summer, I was eager to meet and speak with as many real-life sled dog mushers as I could. The resort itself had a crew of dogs for pulling sleds in the wintertime for the tourists, and it was here that I first got to see the reality of a sled dog’s life.
I was initially shocked to see 40+ dogs all chained and spaced evenly on 4 foot lengths attached to their non-insulated doghouses. As I approached, I noticed how eerily quiet the scene was. The solemn-looking dogs were laying about with nothing to do. However, when the first dog caught sight of me, the kennel, as sled dog yards are commonly referred to, erupted into a frenzy. Dogs began to bark frantically, slamming against their pitifully short chains, others ran in circles, while still others cowered or tried to hide in their houses.
I had never witnessed so many dogs acting so depraved. The scene was startling and heartbreaking at the same time. Knowing the sensitive and curious nature of many dogs in my life, this scene of desperation for any sort of affection was troubling at best.
As I attempted to get closer to the dogs, I heard a voice ring out “You’d better be careful!” The voice, as I turned, startled, belonged to the most quintessential Alaskan face I could imagine. His name was River Mike and he was the dog handler hired to care for the sled dogs during the off-season. I introduced myself and voiced my concern for the strange behavior of the dogs and their living situation. Mike assured me that this was nothing, as these dogs lived quite well compared to many he had worked with.
Mike had worked with and raced sled dogs for almost 20 years before giving it up. He had held records for a number of races and had worked with some of the biggest names in the sled dog world; names that even I knew as a lower 48er and southerner. He had held the possibility of racing in some of the most prestigious races with a selection of world-class dogs but had given it all up because of what he saw as the cruelty inherent in the sport.
As Mike began to describe the miserable lives that these dogs are forced to live, I chimed in “But they love to run, don’t they?” His response was clear and spoken with the patience of a parent explaining the most simple equation.
“If you lived your whole life on a 4 foot chain, you’d run when you got off it too. You’d probably love anything that wasn’t that chain. But what it comes down to is that you’d run whether you wanted to or not, because in their situation they simply don’t have a choice. A dog that doesn’t run is a dog that doesn’t live.”
Considering myself a rather conscientious person regarding animal issues, I was disappointed that I had failed to see such a simple and obvious aspect of mushing.
Mike went on to describe the training practices of mushers on their dogs. Many carried clubs in order to beat unruly dogs back into line. Mike had witnessed dogs beaten to death with shovels and tree branches for not following commands. He had been privy to reliable stories of dogs being shot while hooked up in the team for not pulling hard enough and how the musher allowed the rest of the team to drag their companions’ lifeless bodies home to show what happens when you don’t pull.
He had uncovered mass graves at some of the top racing kennels where thousands of dogs had been killed and buried simply because the pads on their feet weren’t black.
He spoke of the breeding of sled dogs and how only a tiny percentage of the puppies born each year will be allowed to live. The vast majority will be killed, usually by drowning, because of the tiniest imperfection in their coat or nose. He spoke of dogs killed because they no longer were as fast as they once were, or killed just to make room for new dogs.
He had seen countless dogs die in races by over competitive mushers who simply ran their dogs to death in order to win a prize.
The world he described sounded and looked nothing like the stories I had been told or the Disney films I had seen. The world of dog mushing sounded like every other animal exploiting industry I knew of and I was sickened by it.
I was heartsick for these poor dogs, but also ashamed of myself for not questioning the relationship between musher and dogs. Part of me didn’t want to believe the horrors of Mike’s stories. I investigated the training practices of other mushers for myself, and witnessed tremendous abuse physically and emotionally, even by those who claimed to love their dogs.
I saw firsthand dogs dragged by their collars along the ground on their backs towards a gang line of dogs to be hooked up. I saw dogs hit, kicked, punched and shaken violently. I saw dogs cower before their masters and heard stories from the mushers’ own mouths of mother dogs killing her own pups after giving birth from apparent desire to spare them from this life.
I still held out hope that perhaps not all sled dog mushing was bad, but Mike assured me that any time it’s a choice between an animal’s well-being and money, the animal always loses.
He felt it was his responsibility to share with as many people as possible the true stories behind so many fantasies of sled dogs.
He encouraged people to boycott, as do I, races such as the famed and punishing 1,150 mile Iditarod, as well as any sled dog tour group. Although there are stricter laws and rules around the abuse of dogs in competitions, there are none addressing abuse during training, the hundreds of thousands of dogs who have been killed in order to make up those teams of elite dogs and the suffering they endure without a choice.
For them and all animals of the world who have been forced into what can only be called slavery, please do something.
Photo Credit: Alaskan Dude via flickr