by Greg Cote
March 5, 2002
The dogs are running again, in many cases running until they drop, in some cases running until they die.
The 30th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is underway in Alaska to see which team can trek 1,100 miles the fastest. Last year’s winner made it in nine days. The bizarre competition involves 65 “mushers,” drivers along for the ride as their slaves — 16-dog teams, at least at the start — do the hard labor, at times encouraged by their masters’ whips.
It is March madness of a too literal sort.
Dogs die; it is a matter of how many. The Iditarod toll was 117 deaths as the latest race commenced Saturday. The real figure is higher because casualties from the early years are not known. The figure excludes dogs who perish in training, or who later die as a result of the sanctioned torture.
You can imagine the Iditarod folks don’t like sharing such info. It’s like getting the cigarette industry to chat up lung cancer.
The Iditarod is America’s most controversial sporting event, if you’d call this “sporting” in any way.
You either buy into the rugged-outdoors adventurism of the Iditarod as America’s “last great race,” as a celebration of endurance and courage.
Or you see it as America’s most widely accepted display of animal abuse, a grotesque shame masquerading as sport.
There is a compromise: Make the race much, much shorter, with more required rest stops. But that doesn’t interest the Iditarod folks, who guard their “freedom” to grossly overtax their canine chain-gangs.
Dogs have died of hypothermia, strangulation in towlines, heart failure and pneumonia, and been killed when gouged by sleds and attacked by a moose. Iditarod hero and former champ Rick Swanson lost a dog in ’96 after running his team through waist-deep ice water.
The dogs are pulling sleds totaling more than 400 pounds each. To prepare, teams might pull a truck. No wonder anabolic steroids are an issue.
Now, I don’t offend easily. Few would call me a soft heart in terms of my view of animals.
I hold no prayer vigil for a catfish who winds up dusted in cornmeal on somebody’s plate.
I don’t consider horse racing cruel.
I see Fifi in a doggy sweater and I’m not thinking, “Cute poodle,” I’m thinking, “Loony owner.”
(I have no problem telling you that my own dog, Sandy the mutt, is dumber than a piece of driftwood.)
I hear about cosmetic-testing on laboratory mice and I picture a small rodent looking pretty good wearing lipstick and eyeliner.
I have lobbed jabs at the radical People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which, no lie, advocates the football team change names from Green Bay Packers (as in meatpackers) to Green Bay Pickers (as in veggies).
People can surely go nuts on animal rights.
Let’s not lump fishing with organized cockfighting, OK?
And let’s please make a distinction between greyhounds racing a few laps and these Alaskan and Siberian husky dogs being made to run the equivalent of Miami to Washington, D.C., in a death-wish grind interrupted by only three mandatory rest stops.
A Miamian, Margery Glickman, happens to be the Iditarod’s staunchest foe through her Sled Dog Action Coalition (www.helpsleddogs.org), which she runs from a ranch-style home in south Kendall in which she and her husband have raised three children.
The website does not solicit or accept donations. She gives away information, grows awareness.
Glickman, 54, owns one dog herself, a mixed-breed named Bailey, who was rescued from the county pound.
“I always cared about animals,” she said Monday. “But I wasn’t always active at the level I am now.”
That grew from a 1998 Alaskan summer cruise with her two sons. The sightseeing happened upon a huge “dog lot” where more than 200 animals were being raised as Iditarod runners.
“I found the conditions horrific,” she said. “The dogs live tethered permanently on these short leashes. I was appalled, and that feeling stayed with me. I’m taking a stand to help these dogs.”
There are musher kennels all over Alaska. Documented on her website is a musher saying he might breed 300 dogs to get “five good ones.” The rest are “culled,” often killed.
Using dogs as they are used in the race itself would be illegal in many states, including Florida, yet Alaskans somehow romanticize the event as part of their wilderness heritage.
Glickman, a retired elementary-school teacher, gets loads of nasty e-mail but plugs on, filling her website with tons of credibly sourced indications of the race’s cruelty. Pro-animal groups across the country decry the Iditarod but it enjoys a continuing acceptance embodied by the recent Disney movie Snow Dogs, which glorified dog-sled racing.
Yet Glickman’s work is seeing results. Plenty of companies such as Microsoft, Sherwin Williams, Bank of America and Home Depot have dropped their sponsorship of the race or of individual mushers. (Others have not. Glickman’s group just “awarded” Heat owner Micky Arison its Iditarod Dead Dog Award because his Carnival Cruise Lines supports the race.)
While mushers in Alaska are thinking this week of the Iditarod’s more than $600,000 in cash and prizes, Margery Glickman is as far away as she could possibly be — across the country, and philosophically — thinking instead of the Iditarod’s voiceless victims.
“I feel angry. And I feel helpless to a certain extent,” she said. “Mostly, I feel sorry for the dogs.”