What Iditarod Does To Dogs Is True March Madness

by Jeff Jacobs
Hartford Courant
March 18, 2004

Jonathan XII, a 3-year-old white Siberian Husky who loves to be petted, lives a comfortable lifestyle at an unidentified location 20 minutes from the UConn campus. The shroud of secrecy is necessary, his handler Karen Landwehr said, to prevent merry pranksters from Rhode Island and other rival schools from kidnapping the mascot of our state university.

Personally, I’m not buying the explanation.

I’m convinced Jonathan, the noble heir to a tradition that dates to 1934, is being hidden so he is not drafted into the annual war against dogs. Surely you’ve heard of the 1,100-mile death march from Anchorage to Nome. It’s the grotesque spectacle that alternately bills itself as Alaska’s great race and the world’s premier dog-sled race.

USA Today columnist Jon Saraceno once called it the “Ihurtadog.”

Sportscaster Jim Rome upped the ante to “I-killed-a-dog sled race.”

Nothing trumps death, so just paint me thrilled that the 32nd Iditarod finally, mercifully will end this week.

Early Wednesday morning, Mitch Seavey, 44, won the first prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck – hey, a man needs space to cart away his carcasses – by crossing the finish line behind his eight canine slaves in a time of nine days, 12 hours, 20 minutes and 22 seconds.

His dogs were unavailable for comment.

No, not because there isn’t a Doctor Dolittle out there who could serve as a pool reporter and get some juicy quotes. It’s because, according to an article published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in 2002, a study showed 81 percent of the dogs that finished the race had abnormal accumulations of mucus and debris that caused injury and inflammation.

In other words, they were too choked up to comment. Seavey did have plenty to say about his victory and little of it had to do with running the crap out of his dogs over a distance longer than from Hartford to Chicago. To be accurate, Seavey isn’t called a dog-beater or abuser or even Master. He is called a musher, which clearly is a word to honor the mush-for-brains who continue to promote and operate this event.

The supporters of this race have the audacity to call the Iditarod a sporting event. The truth is it’s closer to the scourging scene in Mel Gibson’s new movie.

One more dog dropped dead the other day, bringing the total to at least 122, although there are no official numbers available for the early years. A 7-year-old male named Takk, according to Iditarod officials, died of blood loss associated with gastric ulcers. What the officials didn’t say is ulcers are linked to anti-inflammatory drugs frequently used to help mask injury. Yes, the dogs are subject to random drug testing, so you know these folks are, ah, motivated enough to cheat. Takk, on Kjetil Backen’s 2004 team, was no ordinary mutt. He was one of the two key lead dogs that carried Robert Sorlie to first place last year. In other words, last year’s MVP is this year’s maggot meal.

Backen reportedly was distraught over Takk’s death, but he did manage to ask reporters to bring the dog back for him. Wouldn’t it be fair if the musher were forced to bring his dead dog to the finish line with him? Or maybe it would be fairer if Snoopy was the musher and a dozen humans were latched together for a little 1,100-mile jog through all terrain, including waist-high water and Godforsaken temperatures. Hey, we would even cut them a break and let them listen to Sam Cooke singing “Chain Gang” in their earmuff-phones.

Those who would support this race are quick to belittle critics as hysterics or propagandists for PETA, etc. For the record, my wife and I are longtime multiple dog owners and we believe in hardy exercise for robust breeds. These sled dogs are bred to run. A Siberian Husky like Jonathan is a natural, but only part of the equation. All sorts of breeds and mixed breeds are used. In fact, a Siberian is often mixed with a Greyhound for optimum speed and endurance. Of course as competition grows fiercer to improve times, the faster they go, the harder they will fall.

The cruelty is in the vast distance. The cruelty is in some training techniques that would turn your stomach. This doesn’t begin to address some manuals that recommend killing dogs that don’t cut the mustard. They call it culling. Really, it’s murder. The irony is that the Iditarod distance is so long in the first place. The race is patterned after a long-ago emergency supply route to deliver diphtheria serum.

Dogs reportedly have died from being kicked to death. A group of dogs was mangled by a snow-making machine. They’ve been strangulated. Electrocardiograms to monitor heart problems are now given to the dogs before the race and that’s a start, but only a start.

The romantics pretend this is some extension of a Jack London novel. Hell no. This is a not-so-novel Jack The Ripper crime against man’s best friend. It sullies the meaning of sport.

What remains of the 87 mushers will be crossing the finish line in the next few days, which also means the killing may not be over. In the meantime, Jonathan XII can park himself in front of the television tonight for the start of UConn’s march to the Final Four. This could be a big month for him, the first time both the women and the men win national titles in the same year.

“He’s a quiet dog. He hardly ever barks,” said Landwehr, a 20-year-old junior majoring in animal science. “He’s very mellow, which makes him good with a crowd.”

Landwehr is a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity responsible for Jonathan. The last appearances for Jonathan, who Landwehr said is not allowed in the Civic Center, were Senior Nights at Gampel. She brings him to obedience class each week.

“He’s a loveable dog, but he’s actually quite lazy,” Landwehr said. “He likes to lay down in the middle of games.”

And that’s beautiful.

A dog should be able to enjoy March Madness.

Not be part of it.