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Despite 3 deaths, Iditarod likely to continue

“Two dogs died in the name of sport this week, and this time it wasn’t Michael Vick’s fault.”

So begins an Associated Press commentary by national sports columnist Tim Dahlberg that recounts the final hours of Dizzy and Grasshopper, two members of musher Lou Packer’s team. The two were among three dogs that died in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

“Listen to race supporters and they’ll tell you that, unlike Vick’s dogs, the 5-year-old huskies died doing what they loved. Read the official Iditarod Web site and you’ll find out that sled dogs are pampered and loved by their masters…”

On the other hand, Dahlberg wrote, “They don’t have a problem with chaining up big packs of dogs and running them to within an inch of their life for sport. They accept the fact that the Iditarod is a part of the state’s heritage, and its biggest sporting event. A lot of us in the Lower 48, though, just don’t get it.”

He goes on to ask the question on the minds of many animal right activists: “How many dog deaths are reasonable? How many more must die before the fun is finally sucked out of the sport?”

Packer, a doctor, got lost on the trail. By the time searchers found him, he was leading his team, minus Dizzy and Grasshopper.

“I think those two guys probably froze to death in the high winds,” Packer told the Anchorage Daily News. “I didn’t think it possible.”

The Dahlberg column quotes California veterinarian Barbara Hodges at length. She has written a letter on behalf of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association to Iditarod sponsors like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Wells Fargo, asking them to withdraw their support from the race.

Studies, she says, show long-distance sled dogs have abnormal lung changes due to prolonged heavy breathing, gastric ulcers from the stress of racing, and arthritis and other injuries. 

Dahlberg points out that race organizers, cognizant of the critics, now employ a team of veterinarians to keep the dogs healthy, give them checkups at key points in the race, and do autopsies for cause of death.

(About 140 dogs have died in the race since it began, according to organizations that consider the race inhumane. For a better idea of how they see the race, check out this comment on one of our earlier Iditarod entries.)

Dahlberg doesn’t come right out and call for an end to the treasured Alaska tradition. But he does at least bring up the possibility, and presents a side of the story that looks beyond the “sport” and the coveted revenue it brings in.

Not bad for a sports writer.


Comment from SledDogAction
Time March 19, 2009 at 2:26 pm

The Iditarod tells people that eterinarians keep the dogs healthy, but far too often that’s not true. During the race,
veterinarians do not give dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep
them running. There’s a documented history of veterinarians not pulling sick dogs from the race and ignoring the symptoms of dying dogs. The veterinary staff even gave its Humanitarian Award to a musher who raced his dogs for four days despite the fact that all of them had diarrhea.
For more information, go to
http://www.helpsleddogs.org/remarks-poorvetcare.htm and to
http://www.helpsleddogs.org/vetinfo.htm .

Margery Glickman
Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org

Comment from Eighteenpaws
Time March 19, 2009 at 4:20 pm

The history and spirit of this “sport,” if that remains necessary to many people, can be preserved by instilling much stricter regulations such as substantially shortened courses, imposed delays during extreme weather events, and intense scrutiny by objective professionals throughout the lives and training of these pups and dogs who are bred rampantly in puppy mills for their bulk and pelage. One more breed for humans to subvert! One more breed that is being designed for fast, short, ailment-prone lives! I personally will enjoy seeing the Iditarod dissolve entirely, and certainly along with dog racing, but I try to understand those who truly believe in the “sport” and love of this event. Mushing Huskies for a mile or two in beautiful Duluth, Minnesota reveals thrills for both the eager dogs and their sled riders. I have a Husky myself and have observed and understand her desire of “working” for me, despite that I never ask that of her. The “I” is a cruel endurance in exchange for a paltry purse and sorrowful bragging rights. No animal should suffer for human enjoyment, period. How can anyone justify this is beyond my belief.