(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
Exhausted dogs at the 2010 Iditarod. Photo credit: ZUMA Press

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.”




  1. I just returned from my fourth Iditarod, and spent part of my time at the home of an Iditarod musher. Though I've been to a number of kennels, this was my first time to see exactly what goes on in the final stages of preparation. I'd been aware of the extensive testing done of the dogs before they are allowed to race by the Iditarod veterinarians. But seeing the reports–of dogs that had been approved–and watching the musher and his support team seeing what the numbers meant (so they knew what, if anything, a number on the low or high side told them about what to look for) made me even more aware of the care that is taken to make sure that dogs do well and that no dog is at risk. I've never had tests that extensive myself!

    As for Jane's comments–agree absolutely. Those who oppose sled dog racing, or this race in particular, are at best misguided, and at worst malicious. They certainly cannot really be interested in the well being of the dogs. Experts will attest that much has been learned from studying these dogs, and some of it has saved the lives of other dogs, not just sled dogs. Snicker's death, for example, led to a research fund established by her owner, Karen Ramstead, and that's how it was learned that bleeding ulcers (which is what happened to Snickers) could be forestalled with peptids.

    Most of the people I've met at the Iditarod have dogs, or if they don't, wish they could. If there was any dog abuse going on, they'd be gone in a flash. And lining up in protest. This report is just not accurate.

  2. It's kind of sad that anyone can write opinion articles with absilutey no research or facts (or knowledge). The first thing that put me off anout this article was the caption on the photo: tired dogs lie down. There dogs, like my spoiled Siberian Huskies who sleep in my bedroom, are enjoying sliding in the snow!

    I am an animal rights activist. I attend demonstrations. I prefer animals to most people. And I am an Iditarod fan.

    The Sled Dog Coalition is Margery Glickman and several screen names in Florida; she appears to have no problem with local greyhound racing in her area, in which hundreds of dogs are discarded and killed every year.
    A study was done years ago with a thousand +/- pet dogs. More pet dogs died in the two week study than in an Iditarod. But that is not good enough: several years ago, a dog driver (Karen Ramstead) lost a dog on the trail to inhalation pneumonia, which happens in a metter of hours and reqires a necropsy to diagnose. She raised funds in her dog, Snickers, honor and the money was used for research on ways for this to never happen again. All it takes is some pepsid administered to the dogs; and no dogs have died in the Iditarod for several years now.
    A few important points:
    1. I wrote and asked Ms. Glickman for the names of mushers who gave substandard care to their sled dogs, so us fans could investigate and get them. Many fans are primarily dog lovers, and we will not support anyone who gives less than excellent care. She declined to respond, prefering to make vague statements. If there was really abuse going on, I cannot imagine that she would not be willing to help end it. Makes no sense to me!
    2.It takes year-round training to qualify and accomplish Iditarod. The only people who do this are…people who want to spend most of their time with their dogs! Why in the world would someone give up a comfortable life to live hand to mouth and spend all their time with their dogs, and then abuse them? Does this make sense to you?
    3.I became interested in the Iditarod because I have Siberian huskies, and because I wondered if the race is indeed abusive. What I found is that mushers who mistreat their dogs are shunned by everyone. Perhaps the most telling thing for me was seeing footage of the teams arriving in Nome at the end of the race: many were still lunging and jumping, not wanting to stop! Clearly, these dogs were having fun!
    4. Sled dogs, all of whom have some Siberian husky in them, were selected for thousands of years to WANT to run and pull and work in teams. You only have to look at the dogs arriving in Nome to see that they do indeed want to run..and run…and run.
    4. Killing unwanted dogs: this happened back in the old days, decades ago. Now, there is si much demand for dogs from sled kennels, that "unwanted" puppies and dogs command high prices. NO ONE is stupid enough to kill a dog when they could be paid for that dog! AND I know of several mushers who actually go and take dogs out of the dog pounds and train them to race – and they place well!
    5. As for PETA, they have no moral standing.See.
    And as for HSUS:
    If you want to advocate for animals, please use your intelligence!