On your mark, set… let the cruelty begin

by Jon Saraceno
USA Today
March 3, 2000

Tom Classen has lived outside the “lower 48” for more than 40 years. The retired 81-year-old Air Force colonel has long enjoyed the inspiring beauty of his state, where themes of outdoor adventure and rugged individualism dominate.

This is the weekend he dreads.

This is the time of year when he hangs his head in shame at the ugliness of some of his fellow Alaskans. Classen suffers, but not in silence. “God,” he pleads, “we’ve got to stop this damn killing.”

He is angry. I felt the same way last summer when, vacationing in Alaska, I was forced to listen to Susan Butcher’s propaganda about the Iditarod. The champion musher trotted out her puppies in a well-rehearsed pretense designed to whitewash the bloodshed of what I call the “Ihurtadog.”

It is the most immoral, reprehensible “sporting event” in the USA. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have anti-cruelty laws that would make the Iditarod illegal because of overworking an animal, according to helpsleddogs.org, a Web site devoted to helping our defenseless friends. Unfortunately, institutionalized animal abuse is as common in Alaska as wandering moose.

There, a sled dog is not an animal to be respected. It is to be owned, or leased, like a car. When the dog has too many miles on it, take a guess what happens. Any human being with a smidgen of decency should have nothing to do with the Iditarod. It should be outlawed. Entrenched Alaskan politicians, particularly those in Congress, don’t have the guts.

They are not alone. Commerce rules, not common sense. The Iditarod benefits no one but a drooling pack of unconscionable profiteers. From race organizers to those involved in tourism — even the newspapers from Anchorage to Fairbanks who fawn over the Iditarod as they line their pockets with advertising revenue. For 1,151 miles, sled dogs will pull their glory-seeking, money-grubbing masters through the Alaska wilderness. Even venerable PBS got suckered into glorifying the race last year.

You want to talk killing fields? In the last three years, nine dogs have perished during this mad marathon of canine misery. No one has any idea how many are destroyed in the weeks after the race because of debilitating injury that renders them useless as “athletes.” Unlike humans, they have no choice.

Countless more experience pain and suffering in a never-ending cycle of training that begins in “puppyhood” — if, that is, they are permitted by their tormentors to live and are not culled. During a recent race, a musher was videotaped kicking and beating one of his dogs.

This abuse is common and there’s a reason why many sled dogs cower when approached, Classen says.

“They’ve had the hell beaten out of them,” he says. “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.”

Five weeks ago, Classen contacted the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner to express his outrage. “A civilized person,” he wrote, “is supposed to end cruelty, not add to it.” He says the newspaper did not publish his note, which also included a letter from a man who worked six years in one of the foremost kennels in the mushing industry. He confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their optimum racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.

This weekend, Classen will sit next to his ailing 12-year-old golden retriever and try to comfort her, even as others are in distress. “I’ll read the papers to see how many dogs died,” he says. “I hope all the mushers break their necks.”