Iditarod’s claim to shame: dead dogs

by Jim Reeves
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
March 1, 2003

Today is the day when the dogs begin to die.

The annual I-Killed-A-Dog Race starts today in Alaska.

That Arlington’s Randy Chappel is among the 65 mushers who will drive a team of dogs 1,150 miles — about the distance between New York and Orlando or Fort Worth and Cleveland — brings the story home even more poignantly.

The real question is not who will win this year’s Iditarod. The question is this: How many dogs will die to make it happen?

For die they will.

At least 119 dogs have died, either from being run to death or from other causes, during the Iditarod.

That is the indisputable fact that supporters of the race have no answer for, no excuse to make, no salve to offer. Dogs die so that the race can continue.

Sadly, it doesn’t have to be this way. The race was the brainchild of a woman named Dorothy Page, who in 1967 was searching for a proper way to mark the Alaska Centennial Celebration. Why not, she thought, honor the state’s great “race” in 1925 to save the children of Nome from a diphtheria outbreak? That’s when teams of mushers drove their dog teams in relays to bring precious diphtheria serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome.

It was a courageous and heroic act by 20 mushers and their dogs, led by Gunner Kaassen and William “Wild Bill” Shannon.

But something got lost in the translation. Today’s race is no relay. It is a grueling marathon of epic proportions, fed by the blood of dying sled dogs. The 1925 run, accomplished by 20 teams working in relays, took three weeks. Today, one team is pushed to travel almost twice as far in eight to 10 days.

No wonder dogs die.

There was a time when I thought the Iditarod was something I wanted to see as a journalist. It had a romantic feel to it, a shred of the last frontier; The Last Great Race, as Alaskans like to call it.

I couldn’t imagine that these people didn’t love their dogs just as I love mine, and maybe they do. The difference is that they go into the race knowing that their dogs might die. To them, it’s an acceptable risk.

To most dog lovers, it is not.

“The Iditarod is the biggest event in Alaska, I guess,” said Donna Tyndall of Anchorage, where they will have to truck in snow for the race’s “restart” on Monday to combat a mild winter. “People come in from all over. Celebrities come in.

“You don’t hear many negatives here about it, and I know a lot of people who own dogs.”

I’m convinced that Alaskans and most mushers love their dogs. Why they accept the risk is, however, beyond my comprehension.

Because of this, I had mixed feelings about visiting sled-dog sites and the headquarters of the Iditarod when I was in Alaska last summer.

The first thing I noticed was how small the dogs were. I had always imagined that sled dogs were huskies with massive chests and shoulders. Not so. Most sled dogs are malamutes, slender and rather small, weighing 40-50 pounds. A sled dog weighing more than 65 pounds is rare. My 145-pound Great Pyrenees would dwarf any of them — and probably wouldn’t last an hour on the trail.

Using dogs to pull sleds, when they’re properly trained and cared for, isn’t a horrible concept. It’s about the only way rangers can get around in a massive national park like Denali, for instance, but the dogs will travel less than 100 miles per day, get plenty of food and rest, and love to run. The handlers I saw at Denali treated their dogs with love, kindness and respect.

At the Iditarod headquarters near Wasilla, however, I saw just the opposite. Skinny, underweight dogs were chained to stakes and lay in their own filth, with mosquitoes and flies buzzing around them. When the indifferent handler led them over for a drink, he forgot — until I reminded him — about a dog he’d left crammed into a box the size of a cat crate in a trailer in the hot sun of the parking lot.

Still, the dogs responded gleefully when they were brought over to pull a wheeled sled full of tourists around a track. They wagged their tails, they barked, they jumped for joy. It is the mark of the canine race that they will do anything to please us, even run themselves to death.

It’s racing the dogs at great distances that presents the problem.

Racing sled dogs are plagued by gastric ulcers. Many veterinarians believe these are caused by the regular doses of aspirin, ibuprofen and naprocen that the dogs are given to battle inflammation, swelling and pain. A pain-free dog runs faster and longer.

The Iditarod race committee has tried to address the problem of keeping the dogs healthy. About three dozen vets volunteer each year to work the Iditarod, trying to keep dogs from dying and pulling injured dogs out of the race.

“We look for a brightness in the eyes. Are they sniffing around? Interested in other dogs? When they’re rolling over and taking a snow bath, that’s a good sign,” said vet Roger Trautman of Rock Hill, S.C., in the latest edition of Alaska magazine.

Mushers start the race with a 16-dog team, but in the final days with dogs dropping out along the way, they might be down to just a handful pulling a 400-to-500-pound sled. In last year’s race, DeeDee Jonrowe left the Nutalo checkpoint with eight dogs and 401 miles left between her and Nome. She took one nine-minute rest stop.

Horribly, the Iditarod also has no rule against the use of whips by mushers.

“Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective … a training device such as a whip is not cruel at all, but is effective,” musher Jim Welch wrote in The Speed Mushing Manual published in 1990. “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers … A whip is a very humane training tool.”

Maybe someone should try it on him.

There have been documented stories of exhausted mushers sleeping on their sleds while their dogs continue to run, sometimes dragging a harness-mate who has collapsed in his tracks.

Too often dogs who cannot stop gasping for air inhale their own vomit and choke.

“They’ve had the hell beaten out of them,” retired Air Force colonel and 40-year Alaska resident Tom Classen told USA Today’s Jon Saraceno three years ago. “You don’t just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.’ They understand one thing: a beating.

“These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it, and you know what? They are all lying.”

Yet, Alaskans will insist that they love their dogs, especially their Iditarod heroes. Many have been made famous in children’s books or even stuffed for posterity after they die. They become celebrities.

Of course, so were the gladiators who survived — for a time — the Roman Coliseum.

Here’s the cold, hard fact that we can’t get around: They have never run an Iditarod in which dogs didn’t die. That’s unacceptable.