As death toll of dogs rises, so does Iditarod’s insanity

by Jon Saraceno
USA Today
March 15, 2004

I’m all for mutiny. Dog mutiny, that is.

When it comes to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, how do we get more of our furry friends to lie down on the job? If they belonged to a union, there would be a strike every March when the 1,100-mile marathon of dog misery is propelled by more than 1,000 members through the treacherous Alaskan wilderness.

In that labor dispute, I would be all for the stressed-to-the-max dogs. They are overworked and underpaid. The money and the glory go to management — in this case, mushers and their sponsors.

Why does Alaska permit the “Ihurtadog?”

Easy. Commerce — shameless, bloody business carried out on the backs of man’s best friends.

Sunday was the scene of more death and despair. A dog belonging to race leader Kjetil Backen of Norway suddenly sat down and died. “It is a real tragedy for him and dog mushing as a whole,” race marshal Mark Nordman said at a news conference.

Imagine how the dog felt.

Last week, a 5-year-old dog named Wolf died.

Apologists contend that dogs cannot be made to run, which is true. But many of them sure can be coerced and trained. In the sledders’ parlance, mutiny comes when dogs refuse to budge. It already has happened in this year’s race, which has featured a fast, grueling pace during unusually warm weather.

More than an estimated 120 dogs have perished during the history of the race, which gives a Humanitarian Award. The number of dog deaths does not include animals that perished afterward — or the thousands that have been injured. Death is merely an occupational hazard — for the dogs. In 1973, the race’s first year, the Iditarod took more than 20 days to complete. Two years ago, a speed record was set when Martin Buser finished the race in less than nine days.

Many dogs are dropped during the race because they are unable to continue, but many others continue to trudge on with various injuries.

A couple of years ago, a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical CareMedicine reported that 81% of the 59 dogs they examined after one Iditarod had “abnormal accumulations” of mucus or cellular debris in their lower airways. In addition to fluid in the lungs, bleeding stomach ulcers occur, as does general cramping, dislocations, fractures, muscle and tendon tears, tendinitis, dehydration, hypothermia, raw paws, penile frostbite and viruses.

Not that it’s easy on the mushers, either. But, hey, they choose to participate in this frozen insanity. Doug Swingley, who won the race from 1999-2001, was forced to quit from frostbitten corneas last week.

But back to the dogs. Last week, one musher needed an hour to separate three female dogs in heat from their amorous male teammates, according to the Anchorage Daily News — a newspaper no self-respecting salmon would permit itself to be wrapped in.

First, the Daily News is a sponsor. According to the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the newspaper shelled out a minimum of $50,000. The newspaper also is an investor because it reaps advertising dollars.

Invariably, photographs depict warm and fuzzy images of dogs designed to lull readers and placate critics. Imagine the horrors we don’t see. Mushers and their teams are not monitored by the media — or anyone else. Likewise, many of the newspaper’s syrupy stories seem almost fantasy-like in nature. According to one, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser discussed how dogs seem to get into “the zone,” as humans report doing during endurance events.

“In the zone, one can smell the sweet scent of success,” the Daily News happily wrote.

Think that’s what the dogs are sniffing? I smell something else. Money.

The Daily News is not alone among mercenaries in local media. Alaska Newspapers, Alaska Public Radio and an ABC-TV affiliate that bills itself the “Official Television Station of Iditarod 2004” also are sponsors, joining Chevron, ExxonMobil, Coors Brewing and Wells Fargo.

The economic impact to Anchorage, site of the ceremonial start, is estimated at more than $5 million. Organizers increased the size of this year’s purse by more than $100,000. The winner gets $69,000 plus a new Dodge pickup. It doesn’t require much to buy some folks, even at the expense of living creatures who cannot defend themselves, like poor, old Wolf.

The dogs, of course, get their usual take.

More suffering.