By Jon Saraceno
March 11, 2014
The media incessantly glorify and glamorize the Iditarod, the annual march of misery through the Alaskan wilderness that concludes this week, as some sort of quixotic celebration between man and dog. Frankly, it embarrasses me that the Fifth Estate is so easily snowed under by an avalanche of romanticized lies.
In this idealized, overwrought piece of fiction that otherwise goes by the name poppycock, the supposedly egalitarian partnership of man and canine challenges the Iditarod’s frozen hell and dale of tundra and spruce forests.
Mercenary organizers dreamily call the frigid nightmare “The Last Great Race on Earth.” I continue to call it the “Ihurtadog.”
Man’s best friend need not search for enemies as long as the Iditarod is in business.
This year, mushers whip through the countryside at such a torrid pace that it is quite possible they will finish the race by Monday night, which would be a regrettable record.
Since the inaugural Iditarod in 1973, this ridiculous dog chase has grown in popularity. The winning musher typically receives $50,000 or more, increased kennel business for those involved beyond the mere race and the lure of potential book and speaking deals.
Major corporations buy publicity and, they believe, public good will. Sponsors such as Exxon Mobil, Wells Fargo and Jack Daniels assist in bankrolling the travesty.
Of course, Alaska reaps the benefits of increased tourism. Best as I can determine, the 49th state is dead-last in decency when it comes to animal welfare.
Meanwhile, fairy-tale lovers everywhere are reassured by a few complicit veterinarians that our four-legged friends are “bred” for this insanity.
And the poor sled dogs? Well, their reward for sprinting the equivalent distance from Minneapolis to Atlanta is to escape the marathon alive, if only to be thrown back in the kennel to await sentencing.
This is not sport.
The race is inhumane. It is naked profiteering powered by the booty-covered paws of defenseless animals who deserve better from us. The Iditarod exists in present form for one reason – commercial gain. The only thing sticking out farther than the dogs’ whiplashing tongues are the greedy mitts of their two-legged oppressors.
In recent years, Iditarod organizers have instituted safeguards after being scrutinized by race critics. Among those are mandatory checkpoints, where veterinarians check on the dogs.
The Anchorage Daily News, a newspaper in which no self-respecting king salmon would allow itself to be wrapped, is the lead trumpet in the news media’s one-note band of positive propaganda that has shaped public perception about the Iditarod. Not surprisingly, unless you are surprised by conflict of interest, the Daily News is a sponsor.
Consequently, the public is fed endless feel-good human-interest stories and warm-and-fuzzy photographs of mushers nuzzling their dogs. Ignorant school administrators dignify the race by using it in curriculums. Movie producers poeticize it.
Please don’t misunderstand my undisguised outrage. I have nothing against recreational dog mushing. Or even a race of a sensible distance, duration or safety.
The Iditarod does not qualify on any count.
It is more than 1,100 miles of frenzied lunacy. While there is no confirmed count of dog deaths, we do know that injuries, trauma and the culling of puppies during the year are countless.
Ashley Keith knows about some of the dark secrets. She labored at various sled-dog kennels around the U.S. and later became a New York-licensed animal cruelty investigator. She also worked for an Iditarod champion musher who she will not name for fear of repercussion.
“If people were to go back to the kennels and see what happened leading up to the those 16 dogs on the starting line at the Iditarod, it is a completely different story,” Keith told Thrive Sports of the media portrayal.
“The musher I worked for had numerous kennel locations,” she said. “One of them had about 40 dogs (and that’s) where he took (visitors) for tours. His home (kennel) had over 200 dogs. They had no straw, no water and they were fed a soup mixture. It was absolutely horrible. People didn’t go there – they went to his quote-unquote “public” kennel.
“Either people don’t see what is happening or they think that because they’re working dogs, they don’t mind being on a three-by-five foot chain with a (small) dog house and not having a normal life.”
In other words, becoming an Iditarod champion is based on operating a cutthroat business with dogs as the source of labor. And they are not cheap, which is why some meet an untimely demise.
This year’s Iditarod brought a twist to the madness. According to media reports, the mushers allegedly suffered as much as their dogs.
In the first four days, 13 mushers quit the lunacy – 12 on one day last week. Why? Either they, their sleds or their dogs had been brutalized by treacherous conditions on a historically notorious stretch of the race that had thawed and then refroze.
In some instances, there just wasn’t enough snow, leading to broken legs, busted ankles and countless strained muscles and tendons among mushers. Most dogs sense human suffering.
Wonder if they cared this time.
Mushers report that they were concerned about the dangerous conditions but few, if any, expressed so publicly before the race commenced. Organizers considered changing the venue of the traditional restart from Willow to Fairbanks because there was more ice than snow in many areas.
In the end, they did nothing. After all, the pathetic show must go on.
The mushers and their dogs paid for it. And now this senseless race steams to a conclusion. One musher, Tim Osmar, was quoted by KTUU-TV that this year’s event “is probably going to go down in history as one of the most hard-on-people runs in all times.”
Try getting down on all fours and pulling a sled through horrific conditions for 10 days and sleeping on straw during breaks.
Cry me a Yukon River, fella.
Conditions were so brutal that, only five days into the mayhem, about 60% of the dogs were pulled from active competition. Nonetheless, Iditarod veterinarian Pam May ushered the typical party line with this brushoff: “The dogs look fantastic,” she told reporters.
“I thought they would be having some real issues but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the conditions of the dogs, and I feel like, if anything, the humans had more of an issue than the dogs did.”
The important difference, doctor, is that humans have a choice. We have free will. Dogs are coerced into this Iditarod madness through various means of intimidation beginning when they are puppies – if they are not eliminated through the ranks by being killed as too-expensive-to-feed baggage.
Some dogs, in fact, do quit and refuse to run through their exhaustion. Others have been drugged in order to mask their pain. In the end, just enough sled dogs are traumatized enough to continue to run through the distress in order to please their owners.
In other words, show me a dog who loves heart failure, dehydration or hypothermia and I will show you a dead dog. In the case of the Iditarod, nearly 150 dogs have perished since 1994. Who knows how many died during the previous two decades? Or did so months after the Iditarod, following much suffering, because of race-related complications?
In 2010, musher Lance Mackey commanded his team of dogs pull his sled almost 120 miles nonstop. That run lasted 18 hours. Of course, it put Mackey into the lead, which is what he cared about.
What a brave soul he was to risk the well-being of God’s creatures in the pursuit of lapping up earthly trinkets and kudos. But the veteran musher is not alone in the physical and mental incarceration of these great animals. Blood is on the hands of all those involved, directly or indirectly, with the Iditarod, no matter how hard they try to rinse off the stain with the color of money.