(ANIMAL NEWS) The infamous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins this weekend. The Iditarod is a two-week, 1,100-mile long race across Alaska, one of the toughest sled dog races anywhere. At least one dog has died in most of the previous races, this includes 20 since 2005. There have also been numerous reports of dog abuse, and since most of the dogs in the race are bred precisely for racing, the ones that don’t make great runners are oftentimes simply killed off. Proponents of the race argue that the hyper breeds that partake in it enjoy running, and that their wolf ancestors are known for endlessly roaming the woods. But it’s more than a stretch to compare a grueling 125 miles a day with a sled attached to your back, to just roaming around in the woods for fun. Read on to find out more about this brutal race. — Global Animal
Russell McLendon, Mother Nature Network
The 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off this weekend, sending 66 dog-powered sleds on a two-week, 1,100-mile slog across Alaska. Dubbed “the Last Great Race on Earth,” it’s one of the longest, toughest and most popular sled dog races anywhere.
Thanks to those same superlatives, though, it’s also one of the most controversial.
Animal advocates have long claimed the Iditarod is too extreme, citing its history of dog deaths — 142 since 1973, according to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, including 20 since 2005 — and reports of abuse. Those issues still hound the race in its 40th year, even as supporters point to safety measures such as microchips, drug tests, health screenings and mid-race checkups, plus the dogs’ training and genes.
“Anyone who has ever witnessed a sled dog race can attest to the enthusiasm that sled dogs demonstrate for their sport,” chief Iditarod veterinarian Stuart Nelson wrote in 2010. “Running is what they are born to love.” (Nelson and other Iditarod officials didn’t respond to MNN’s questions for this story, but spokeswoman Erin McLarnon explained that it’s because they’re too busy with pre-race duties.)
Sled dogs certainly are bred and raised to run, and they often do seem thrilled to oblige (as in this photo). But separating any dog’s love of work from its loyalty to humans isn’t easy. And since racing is the only life many sled dogs know, some animal advocates say they can’t be considered truly willing participants.
“We know dogs like to have fun and run, but this is a completely different scenario,” says David Byer, senior corporate liaison for PETA. “They’re running for hours a day in brutal temperatures. No animal is going to enjoy pneumonia or hypothermia. This is not something that is good for the dogs, no matter how they are bred.”
But while PETA opposes mushing in general — not a popular stance in Alaska, where the sport dates back centuries — many animal-rights groups are less absolute. The Sled Dog Action Coaltion supports recreational mushing, for example, and the Humane Society of the United States is neutral, aside from concerns about the Iditarod.
“The HSUS does not oppose the use of dogs in sledding,” the group says in a statement, “but has concerns about recent dog deaths in the Iditarod, and urges the organizers to reach for a higher animal care standard.” Iditarod officials already boast of a high care standard, including pre-race evaluations, blood testing, ECG recordings and mid-race health exams. “The [Iditarod Trail Committee] has made some reforms,” the HSUS acknowledges, “such as reducing the maximum size of dog teams from 20 to 16, in order to allow the mushers to keep better tabs on the animals.”
Nonetheless, it adds, “race organizers continue to mass-market the race and hype the competition among mushers who are continually attempting to break speed records. Race times are declining, and that is putting more dogs at risk.”
Read the rest of the story on the Mother Nature Network: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/iditarod-still-dogged-by-cruelty-concerns