Although the weather is heating up, my focus now is on an event that requires a very frigid climate. It is one of my favorite in that it involves my love of dogs and appreciation for unique sporting events. It involves dog teams, sub-zero temperatures, frostbite and a 1,000 mile race. In case it’s not clear, I’m talking about the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Snow Dogs, which may be one of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s best roles ever, then you know this is a dog sled race. The Iditarod is a 1,000 mile-long trail covering the frozen and brutal tundra of Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. Contrary to what the movie might lead one to believe, the difficult race requires years of experience with and close trust of one’s dog sled team to compete in this 9-15 day race through the Alaskan wilderness. It is not uncommon for seasoned veterans, even past race winners, to drop out of the race altogether because the conditions are too harsh.
The Iditarod is the most famous sporting event in Alaska, attracting participants from all over the United States and the world, including those from warm climates like Jamaica and Brazil. It might draw interest due to the fascinating landscape and culture of Alaska. Who wouldn’t want to see sled dog teams racing around battling the elements and showing their enduring spirits? The towns which make up the checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trek provide lodgings for competitors and relish in the experience of talking with participants and exchanging stories with one another. So to Alaska it is much more than just a dog sled race.
Alaska is the only state to have such a large dog sled spectacle, and it makes sense that no other state does. Not only is it the coldest state in the country, but much of the land is sparsely populated with humans, while large animals unique to the Alaskan fields and forests are abound. To endure such a climate, the participants of the Iditarod must be hardened individuals. In fact, they are the hardest of the hard, the craziest of the crazy, if they choose to willingly go through with all of this year after year, for sport! No matter how tough you may think you are, if you were to go out there and try to mush a pack of dogs in sub-freezing temperatures, I guarantee you the initial novelty of the whole spectacle would wear off quickly.
The thought of spending copious amounts of time sledding with dogs seems fantastic. Yet taking all this into consideration, when it comes to a 1,000 mile race in barren wilderness, I know I would not be able to handle it. So I salute these participants of such a nerve-rattling and will-bending race. What makes it all better is that age and gender have a less important role in how the results turn out. Last year, the winner of the Iditarod was the youngest to do so at the age of 24, and his father was this year’s winner and the oldest at age 53. The runner up to him was a 27 year-old woman. This appears to distinguish this race from many sports in which can athletes retire in their thirties, and women’s professional sports receive far less attention in the media due to assumptions about the “innate biology” of women. The Iditarod stands as a sheer, brute test of one’s will power and ability to survive, along with a bit of luck.
If you haven’t fully realized how tough these participants are, think about this: they carry axes, and one of its many uses is fending off attacking moose when they are sledding. Sometimes the moose are imaginary from the hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation. To the mushers, it must feel as though even the moose don’t want them to finish the race. Participants have even been known to come back with a frostbitten ear without even realizing it. That they don’t even notice that their ear is frozen is indicative of the highest pain tolerance imaginable. I play rugby and I’m used to taking and delivering some pain, but the thought of all of this being a normal occurrence in this tough-as-nails spectacle of sport makes me grateful that all I have to do is tackle people that have six inches and fifty pounds on me.
I am simply fascinated by this whole idea of yelling mush at a pack of dogs and taking off trying to outrun your limits. Additionally, if you consider dog sledding a sport—which it should be because NASCAR is considered a sport—then it is one of the best. If I had to pick anyone to be on my team during the zombie apocalypse, it would be an Iditarod musher.
Mushers involved with the Iditarod should be condemned. Iditarod dogs suffer horrendous cruelty every day of their lives. Mushers have drowned, shot, bludgeoned and dragged many dogs to death. For example, Iditarod musher Dave Olesen drowned a litter of newborn puppies. Another musher got rid of unwanted puppies by tying them in a bag and tossing the bag in a creek. Mushers even have a saying about not breeding dogs unless they can drown them: “Those who cannot drown should not breed.”
Terrible things happen to dogs during the Iditarod. This includes: death, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, kennel cough, broken bones, torn muscles and extreme stress. At least 142 dogs have died in the race, including four dogs who froze to death in the brutal cold.
Veterinary care during the Iditarod is poor. In the 2012 race, one of Lance Mackey’s male dogs ripped out all of his 16 toenails trying to get to a female who was in heat. This type of broken toenail is extremely painful. Mackey, a four-time Iditarod winner, said he was too stubborn to leave this dog at a checkpoint and veterinarians allowed Mackey to continue to race him. Imagine the agony the dog was forced to endure.
Here’s another example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. To make matters worse, kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.
Iditarod dogs endure brutal training. Jeanne Olson, who has been a veterinarian in Alaska since 1988, confirmed the brutality used by mushers training dogs for the Iditarod. She talked about dogs having cracked ribs, broken jaws or skulls from mushers using two-by-fours for punishment. In an article published by the University of Alaska, Dr. Olson said, “There are mushers out there whose philosophy is…that if that dog acts up I will hit that dog to the point where it would rather die than do what it did, ’cause the next time it is gonna die.'”
Jane Stevens, a former Iditarod dog handler, describes a dog beating in her letter published by the Whitehorse Star (Feb. 23, 2011). She wrote: “I witnessed the extremely violent beating of an Iditarod racing dog by one of the racing industry’s most high-profile top 10 mushers. Be assured the beating was clearly not within an ‘acceptable range’ of ‘discipline’. Indeed, the scene left me appalled, sick and shocked. After viewing an individual sled dog repeatedly booted with full force, the male person doing the beating jumping back and forth like a pendulum with his full body weight to gain full momentum and impact. He then alternated his beating technique with full-ranging, hard and fast, closed-fist punches like a piston to the dog as it was held by its harness splayed onto the ground. He then staggeringly lifted the dog by the harness with two arms above waist height, then slammed the dog into the ground with full force, again repeatedly, all of this repeatedly.”
During the 2007 race, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jon Saraceno wrote in his column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.”
Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” He also said, “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…” Former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford wrote in Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper: “Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses…..”
FOR MORE FACTS: Sled Dog Action Coalition, helpssleddogs(dot)org