Iditarod dog deaths unjustifiable

by George Diaz
Orlando Sentinel
March 5, 2000

The unofficial death count is 114, though the numbers lie because it isn’t possible to follow all the bloody paw prints of innocent animals that have died in the name of this barbaric “sport.”

They have been strangled in towlines, gouged by sleds, suffered liver injury, heart failure, pneumonia and “external myopathy,” a condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise.

A previous race winner was banned in 1990 after accusations that he struck a dog with a snow hook. In 1985, a woman musher (dog sled driver) watched the race from the sidelines after a moose stomped on her team of dogs.

Although the fluff coverage in The Anchorage Daily News promotes the Iditarod as “Alaska’s great race,” it is nothing more than a barbaric ritual that gives Alaskan cowboys a license to kill.

After a ceremonial start Saturday, 81 teams began a gruelling stretch that will last between nine and 14 days. There is no sport in torturing sled dogs through a race that covers 1,151 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Imagine racing your dog from Orlando to New York, depriving him of sleep to complete the course as quickly as possible, mushing though waist-deep water and ice, with the dog losing about 10 pounds through the ordeal.

Now in its 28th year, the Iditarod presses on, fueled by dollars, though not much sense. Last year’s purse was $500,000, the largest in race history.

No amount of money could justify this torture.

Dogs are bred in unsupervised kennels to race, and those who don’t meet the standards are killed, often shot in the head. Musher Lorraine Temple justified the shootings in an interview last year: “They [the big racing outfits] can’t keep a dog who’s a mile an hour too slow.”

Fortunately, she was not on the race course when Carl Lewis began to see a drop in his 100-meter speed, or Carl might have taken a bullet to the head as well.

I’ll confess to being a liberal, tree-hugging animal lover. I reached for the Kleenex at a recent screening of My Dog Skip, a precious story about a boy and his dog. Best-selling author John Grisham acknowledged he shed some tears, too, so I consider myself proud to be in such elite company.

But one doesn’t have to be smitten by a lick on the face to feel the emotional tug of animals that are bred for abuse. Idiotrods — Webster’s defines them as “clueless supporters of this race” will have you think that there is a noble purpose in the rugged, adventuresome spirit of competition, and a loving bond between musher and dog. I am sure they also will try to convince that you can find true love on a Fox network TV special, as long as you have annulment papers handy.

In efforts to curb criticism, race officials have made some concessions. This year, electrocardiograms were done on 1,650 dogs, trying to identify dogs with heart problems.

Unfortunately, healthy dogs simply don’t have the option of telling their masters that they’d rather just skip the race altogether and take a leisurely romp in the park instead.

The Iditarod still amounts to an illegal sweatshop for dogs, with too many horror stories in the archives to make one think that weeding out a few bad tickers in the pack will end the cruelty.

This is a bad idea for man and beast. Consider this gruesome snapshot from the 1999 race, in which a musher was attacked by his pack of dogs.

Dan Dent had picked up a high-performing female on race day, hoping to strengthen his team. Instead, he messed up the delicate social structure of the pack of dogs, which turned on the new dog after wallowing in deep snow along the Susitna River.

“They were all going at [Storm] like a bunch of hyenas,” Dent told The Anchorage Daily News. “They were all going for the kill. It was a pretty ugly sight. I was just watching the other dogs try to eat Storm alive.
“If I didn’t get in there, Storm was going to be killed.”

After removing his gloves to undo a snap that held Storm to a gangline, Dent was attacked by the frenzied pack. “My hands were just hamburger,” said Dent, who was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center.

At least Dent lived. There are at least 114 innocent animals with more horrifying stories to tell, if we only could listen to the haunting howls from their graves.