Grueling Iditarod not even fit for dogs

by Jon Saraceno
USA Today

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a natural-born runner with unbridled endurance, strength and spirit. You would run yourself to death, if allowed.

Imagine your coach signing you up for a marathon in the Alaskan hinterland. He ships you to the race in a wooden box with an opening only large enough for your snout.

Imagine running more than 1,000 miles or roughly the equivalent from Boston to St. Louis. Imagine trudging for almost two weeks over frozen terrain, jagged rocks, stumps and divots at subzero temperatures, often in the middle of the night. Your feet are raw, cracked and bloody despite wearing “booties.” When you protest, your coach hands you Super Glue to affix a patch of moleskin to your oozing sores.

Limping and exhausted, perhaps running with a strength-sapping virus attacking your scrawny 45-pound body, imagine surreptitiously being given tranquilizers or opiates to mask injury or improve performance.

Imagine being tethered to 15 other runners on a 50-foot gangline while pulling 400 pounds. Imagine flipping on your back and being dragged down an icy incline.

Imagine the “weaker” of your siblings being culled from the family. Imagine seeing them shot in the head. Or imagine someone beating you to death with a snow hook.

Imagine running the race of your life, then sleeping on a bed of straw.

Imagine having no choice in any of this.

Imagine no more. All of this has happened. And worse.

This is the Iditarod. This is sick and stupid.

I’m told this is “sport.” After all, the media dutifully report it. TV and newspapers, including mine, glorify it. Organizers of the Anchorage-to-Nome marathon of dog misery starting Saturday blithely call it “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

I call the Iditarod something else: Ihurtadog.

It is a travesty of grueling proportions. It is not entertainment. It is an embarrassment. And it can be deadly — but only if you’re the sled dog. Please, don’t try to tell me about all the “rules” designed to prevent harm to our furry friends.

The race’s death rate is 2.9 fatalities for every 1,000 competitors. That would translate into 290 deaths in the Boston Marathon during the last decade, according to the Humane Society. Three dogs died last year, and five the year before. At least one has perished every year since the race began in 1973. In 1996, five-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson was disqualified after one of his dogs died as he mushed through a waist-deep overflow of frozen slush and water.

The Iditarod is an outrage. It should be banned in present form.

It won’t be. Too much rich Alaskan tradition and culture at stake, apologists of animal cruelty say. Too much heroism exhibited, organizers say. Too much valuable medical research, veterinarians say. Why, the wife of veterinarian Sonny King, a musher from Spartanburg, S.C., told me so.

Mallie King, a former kindergarten teacher, is involved in the growing national marketing of the race to children in our schools, under the guise of “educating” them about Alaska and the Iditarod through the Internet. As for her husband, she says in a soft Southern accent, the race is a “giant laboratory for him.” By the way, in addition to his vet business, King has his own Web site, race sponsors and a part in an upcoming USA Network documentary on the Iditarod.

“This is the pinnacle of (canine) science,” Mallie King says. “In 1996, he won the ‘Golden Stethoscope’ award for being the best trail vet. These dogs love to do this. Doesn’t your dog go in the back yard and chase squirrels? This is how God provided for people who lived in the Arctic. These dogs are not dying from abuse. God didn’t mean for dogs to outlive us.”

Ever notice what “dog” is spelled backward?

What a way to treat man’s best friend.