By Jake Flanagin
qz.com, March 11, 2015
Saturday, Mar. 7, marked the start of the 2015 Iditarod—officially known as Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth®—an annual dogsled race stretching approximately 1,100 miles between the Alaskan cities of Anchorage and Nome.
Though first organized (in an abridged version) in 1967 as part of centennial celebrations of the Alaska Purchase, the world-famous race takes inspiration from the state’s early twentieth-century overland dogsled mail-routes. The Iditarod Trail was once used to ferry correspondence and supplies between the Alaskan coast and inland mining camps, though it is perhaps most fondly remembered for its role in combating the diphtheria epidemic of 1925. Due to a shortage of airplane pilots—who by that time had begun to supplant dogsled drivers, or “mushers”—medicine had to be sent to the remote northwest village of Nome via dog teams in the ostensibly impassable height of winter.
Known historically as “the Great Race of Mercy,” the event precipitated a recreational dogsledding renaissance, thanks in part to the heroism of Balto. The lead dog of the first team to reach Nome was later immortalized by the 1995 Universal Pictures animated classic. In honor of Balto’s musher, Leonhard Seppala, the Iditarod was initially called the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race. Balto himself is memorialized by a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park.
An employee at a dogsledding tourist attraction in Whistler, British Columbia, slaughtered 100 dogs when told to ‘downsize the kennel.’ Today, the Iditarod consists of more than 100 recreational mushers and their teams of up to 16 dogs. The course crosses two mountain ranges, runs along the Yukon River, and over the frozen Norton Sound. Though the route is as unpredictable and obstacle-bound as it was in 1925, it operates within a framework of thoroughly modern regulations and amenities: demarcated trails, mandatory rest stops, checkpoints with dog food, a team of on-call veterinarians, and corporate sponsorships, to name a few. What was once a necessary mode of trade and cargo-shipment has become, in no uncertain terms, a commercial sporting event.
But this commercialization also raises some thorny ethical questions. Horse- and greyhound-racing, though still widely practiced, are generally more publicly maligned than valorized. Meanwhile mushers, in the public consciousness, are just as theoretically heroic today as they were in 1925, though the stakes have shrunk to nil. Perhaps more importantly, how how does competitive dogsledding differ, essentially speaking, from any other exploitative form of animal-based entertainment? And, in that light, should it be summarily abolished?
One of the problems endemic to dogsledding stems from an excess of breeding stock. What to do with canines who are past racing age? It is endemic in the sense that there are fewer clear solutions than in other forms of animal racing. Ex-racer greyhounds, temperament-wise, typically do well in adoptive homes and has become a rather fashionable cause, to boot. There are a large number of horse sanctuaries across the United States devoted to caring for retired racehorses—many of which are still able to breed post-career. This lends retired racehorses a certain economic appeal that sledding dogs lack. Read more…