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Iditarod Race to the Finish - or Death?

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started in Anchorage on March 6th, and the lead contenders are homing in on Nome.  This famous 1,000 mile sled dog race is as controversial as it is historic, and opinions and tempers run hot on both sides of the debate.

Although most people picture a Siberian husky or a Malamute when they think of sled dog racing, the dog which is bred and used by mushers is a landrace breed.  "Landrace" breeds arise naturally, out of the needs of their breeders.  You could call it a kind of "purpose-built mutt."  

The landrace used in mushing is called a "husky," although it is smaller and trimmer than most husky breeds.  It comes in a variety of coat and eye colors, and is bred for speed, endurance, and "easy keeping," meaning that it can go far on a minimum amount of food.

Lance Mackey and Jeff King are currently duking it out for the number one spot in the race, which has only six checkpoints (about 220 miles) left before the big finish in Nome.  Mackey and King have both arrived at the Shaktoolik checkpoint, Mackey with 12 dogs and King with 13.  

Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, has a good history of humane treatment of his dogs.  In 2007 Mackey became the first person to win both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest (another 1,000 mile sled dog race) in the same year.  At the same time, he won the Yukon Quest Veterinarians Choice award.  The Veterinarians Choice award is determined by a vote of the participating veterinarians, who nominate their choice for the musher who took the best care of their dogs during the run.  

Six dogs died on the Iditarod trail in 2009, which brings the total number of recorded dog deaths to 142.  The Iditarod is one of the few sporting events (either animal or human) where young, healthy participants regularly die or are sidelined by injury.  At least one dog death has occurred in almost every Iditarod race, although no humans have died.

Imagine if football players in the Superbowl regularly dropped dead as part of play!  Superbowl proponents might argue that "well, it's a hard sport, that's kind of the point."  But the rest of the world might have qualms about a sport in which the deaths of the players is a routine event.

Don't get me wrong, the majority of human Iditarod racers love and respect their dogs.  But that doesn't change the fact that they also enter their beloved animals into a race which could easily prove fatal, if not debilitating.  

Not to mention those racers who have zero respect or love for their teams.  Ramy Brooks comes to mind.  Brooks was disqualified from the 2007 Iditarod after bystanders witnessed him kicking his dogs and hitting them with a sled pole.  (One of the dogs involved in the incident died the next day, but the results of a necropsy were "inconclusive.")  Jerry Riley was banned for life in 1990 for hitting his dog with a sled anchor.  Rick Swenson was temporarily suspended after one of his dogs drowned when he pushed his team through a slushy river.

"The dogs love to race" is a common rebuttal.  Well, that's true!  You can't beat a dog into running a 1,000 mile race - they do it because they love it.  But dogs love a lot of things that aren't good for them, and it's our job as their stewards to make the right choices for them.

Creative Commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Alaskan Dude