It’s 2015—time to pack up the Iditarod

By Jake Flanagin, March 11, 2015

Saturday, Mar. 7, marked the start of the 2015 Iditarod—officially known as Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth®—an annual dogsled race stretching approximately 1,100 miles between the Alaskan cities of Anchorage and Nome.

Though first organized (in an abridged version) in 1967 as part of centennial celebrations of the Alaska Purchase, the world-famous race takes inspiration from the state’s early twentieth-century overland dogsled mail-routes. The Iditarod Trail was once used to ferry correspondence and supplies between the Alaskan coast and inland mining camps, though it is perhaps most fondly remembered for its role in combating the diphtheria epidemic of 1925. Due to a shortage of airplane pilots—who by that time had begun to supplant dogsled drivers, or “mushers”—medicine had to be sent to the remote northwest village of Nome via dog teams in the ostensibly impassable height of winter.

Known historically as “the Great Race of Mercy,” the event precipitated a recreational dogsledding renaissance, thanks in part to the heroism of Balto. The lead dog of the first team to reach Nome was later immortalized by the 1995 Universal Pictures animated classic. In honor of Balto’s musher, Leonhard Seppala, the Iditarod was initially called the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race. Balto himself is memorialized by a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park.

An employee at a dogsledding tourist attraction in Whistler, British Columbia, slaughtered 100 dogs when told to ‘downsize the kennel.’ Today, the Iditarod consists of more than 100 recreational mushers and their teams of up to 16 dogs. The course crosses two mountain ranges, runs along the Yukon River, and over the frozen Norton Sound. Though the route is as unpredictable and obstacle-bound as it was in 1925, it operates within a framework of thoroughly modern regulations and amenities: demarcated trails, mandatory rest stops, checkpoints with dog food, a team of on-call veterinarians, and corporate sponsorships, to name a few. What was once a necessary mode of trade and cargo-shipment has become, in no uncertain terms, a commercial sporting event.

But this commercialization also raises some thorny ethical questions. Horse- and greyhound-racing, though still widely practiced, are generally more publicly maligned than valorized. Meanwhile mushers, in the public consciousness, are just as theoretically heroic today as they were in 1925, though the stakes have shrunk to nil. Perhaps more importantly, how how does competitive dogsledding differ, essentially speaking, from any other exploitative form of animal-based entertainment? And, in that light, should it be summarily abolished?

One of the problems endemic to dogsledding stems from an excess of breeding stock. What to do with canines who are past racing age? It is endemic in the sense that there are fewer clear solutions than in other forms of animal racing. Ex-racer greyhounds, temperament-wise, typically do well in adoptive homes and has become a rather fashionable cause, to boot. There are a large number of horse sanctuaries across the United States devoted to caring for retired racehorses—many of which are still able to breed post-career. This lends retired racehorses a certain economic appeal that sledding dogs lack.

Sledding dogs, the majority of which are mixes of huskies, malamutes, and Samoyed dogs, are of more boisterous temperament than the average canine. They need space—a lot of it. They also need grooming—a lot of it. And a life of regular exposure to some of the harshest elements on the North American continent does not exactly make for the world’s most easygoing house-pet. This perception is played up by horror stories of mushers and veterinarians who deem dogs “unadoptable” by default. Last year, an employee at a dogsledding tourist attraction in Whistler, British Columbia, slaughtered 100 dogs when told to “downsize the kennel” by his employer, for example.

Then there is the typical life of a sled dog itself. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, (SDAC) an organization that advocates on behalf of the various breeds involved in the sport, the Iditarod has “led to an increase in the number of husky dog kennels in Alaska. In these kennels, many dogs are treated cruelly. Many kennels have more than 100 dogs. Some have as many as 200 dogs. None of the kennels is inspected or supervised by the State of Alaska. Mushers raise many dogs hoping that a few will be strong enough to run in the race.”

Those deemed strong enough are subjected to conditions that, as mentioned, heighten aggression and territoriality. The practice of “tethering,” or leaving dogs chained up to a single spot for the majority of their days, is a key factor in this regard. What’s more, though it is not the widespread norm, there are reports of dog handlers whipping, beating, kicking, and dragging dogs as part of a spectrum of “acceptable discipline.” Harsh, psychologically damaging noisemakers, known as “jigglers” or “poppers” are also employed, generally before whipping, so as to induce a perverse form of Pavlovian response, according to The Cheechako’s Guide to the Art of Dog Mushing by Lavon Barve.

A number of racing dogs also leave “the industry” with significant medical problems that are expensive to treat—another factor that makes them less desirable to prospective adopters. “Training alone, without the additional stress of racing, results in significant, measurable gastrointestinal damage,” wrote Dr. Paula Kislak, president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, in an email to the SDAC. “Serious stomach ulcers and other significant, measurable gastrointestinal damage results from racing as little as 100 miles.”

Significant bone and muscular damage is also inflicted in off-season training, which frequently consists of teams pulling 400 to 500 lb. all-terrain vehicles up and down muddy, Alaskan hills.

And the aforementioned tethering can lead to all sorts of long-term infections. “A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area,” the SDAC reports. “Because the chained dog is always close to his own fecal material, he can easily catch deadly parasitical diseases by stepping in or sniffing his own waste. The ground within the dog’s chained area may have a high concentration of parasite larvae.”

On the trail, things are only worse. PETA reports, “About 1,500 dogs start the Iditarod, but more than one-third are flown out every year because they become sick, injured, or exhausted from being forced to run for hours through jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, and desolate tundra in biting winds, blinding snowstorms, and temperature fluctuations from about 40 degrees [Fahrenheit] to 60 degrees below zero.”

All of the evidence reports to a simple fact: dogsledding is bad for dogs. And while dogsledding might have been good for people in 1925, in 2015 it seems there is little substantive benefit to gain anymore from races like the Iditarod. Even financially the event is a wash, pulling in a paltry $2.5 million in profit annually—peanuts when compared to the Churchill Downs Incorporated, aka the Kentucky Derby, which earned $28.8 million in gross profit in 2014.

Any excuse for the Iditarod’s continued existence seems then to lie in its history. The tradition of dogsledding certainly has noble roots. But Alaska today has a shortage of airplane pilots. And diphtheria is really not a problem for the children of contemporary Nome.

History aside, dogsledding is exploitative. It’s a bloodsport. And despite what cutesy, animated films would have you believe, these animals have no regard for a “higher purpose,” the thrill of competition, and certainly no consciousness of the Iditarod’s history. They are incentivized to race in the same way any dog is taught a trick—with food, maybe a little affection, and in the worst case scenarios, fear and pain.

In 1925, it might have been appropriate to sacrifice the comfort and well-being† of a few dogs to deliver lifesaving anti-diphtheria medicine to the most icebound regions of Alaska. In 2015, we don’t—and certainly not for the sake of sport.