Iditarod Cruelty: Fact or Fiction
According to some animal rights activists, dog mushing is a cruel sport. I’m amazed at what gets published as facts when it is mostly an opinion from people who have no actual experience with sled dogs or living in the Arctic environment where the dog mushing takes place. Over the months I will look at some of these claims and give you my opinion, based on my years of involvement with the sport.
Tethering is cruel to the dog: Fiction
Whenever I read this comment I know it is written by someone who has no actual experience with sled dogs and pack animals. Tethering accomplishes several functions, it keeps the animal in a defined space, it prevents the members of the pack from injuring each other from fights or accidents and it starts the puppy training, getting them used to being restrained and helps them adjust to being in a harness that will be tethered to a gangline when they are in the team . I have made the mistake of using a long chain that allowed dogs to physically interact with each other and the result was injured dogs from fights, and these were dogs that ran side by side in my team. Sled dogs do not have to be physically touching each other to be interacting. Just being in close proximity to each other means they are in their social group and not alone. Sled dog puppies are kept in a puppy pen with their litter mates, or allowed to roam the dog lot for months before being tethered to a stake or pole. Compare this to your typical household pet that are usually taken away from their litter and mother at a young age and then left alone all day long while the family goes to work, school etc.. How is leaving a pet alone in the house or in the back yard better for the dog than keeping it together with its pack?
As for the argument that the dogs are suffering because they are left outside, that is their natural environment and they are very well adapted to it. At my home in McGrath in January 1989, it was -50 degrees F or colder for 3 weeks. Evan though they had snug dog houses filled with straw beds, the dogs would spend their time laying on top of their dog houses. I was reluctant to take them out in that temperature, but when I brushed the snow that had accumulated on the dog sled, they went ballistic wanting to go for a run. I took them out for a short run and they were in their glory and didn’t want to go back to the house. You don’t force the dogs to run, it’s what they want to do.
I was in Florida recently and on a few occasions saw husky owners walking their dogs. The dogs had their tongues hanging out and were panting profusely. They were also pulling the owner along by the leash. The anti- mushing crowd would say this was a wonderful life for those dogs, I disagree. I think the sled dogs I had that were kept in a pack and given the opportunity to run in a team through the arctic winter were living a much more fulfilling life and doing what they are genetically programmed to do. They were working dogs engaged in an activity that that was inherent in their genetic makeup and rewarding.
Iditarod Cruelty: Fact or Fiction
Well this Iditarod turned out to have about everything that could be thrown at the mushers, and then some. Over the years I’ve been used to seeing little snow in the Farewell Burn, but coming out of Rainy Pass I was surprised to see the area along the Kuskokwim River and Little Egypt Mountain completely brown. There were large areas there that had no snow at all.
The dry trail made for some hairy dog mushing and took its toll on the mushers with more than 10 mushers scratching in the first 3 days due to busted up sleds and bodies from the dry trail.
There were a lot of choice words for the trail and the Iditarod Trail Committee from some of the mushers when they arrived in Nikolai. In McGrath I listened to Jason Mackey as he described his ride through the mountains and along the trail. “ It was like being on a roller coaster that was completely out of control. I felt like I was free falling through the air at times and actually feared for my life.” Fortunately neither Jason or his dogs were injured and he finished in 34th place.
For those that made it through the snowles part of the trail intact, they probably thought the worse was behind them, but Norton Sound is known for its storms and as the leaders worked their way to the finish in Nome some real bad weather set in. Four time Iditarod Jeff King champion set out from White Mountain with what seemed to be an insurmountable lead, only to be hammered into submission by a raging ground blizzard that brought his team to a standstill. Waiting at the finish line in Nome and watching the Iditarod tracker, we saw that Jeff had been stationary just a few miles from the Safety checkpoint, then Aily Zirkle passed him before she became stationary in Safety for a long time. While she waited out the storm in Safety, Dallas Seavey passed through without seeing her there. He pushed on to Nome thinking he was in 3rd place and just hoping to beat his dad Mitch who was behind him. It took Aily almost 20 minutes to get her team organized and try to chase down Dallas. With a larger, faster team she made up 17 minutes of that time, but Dallas crossed the finish line less than 3 minutes ahead of her, a very surprised Iditarod 2014 Champion in a record breaking time of 8 days, 13 hours and 4 minutes. Good going Dallas!
What a glorious day we have had here in Nome today. Twenty six teams have arrived so far under clear calm skies at night and sunny weather during the day. Several teams had trouble keeping focused on on the finish line and tried to make detours as they came off the ice and down Front Steet. This was the first time the winner arrived at night in some years. The slower pace made for a tighter race with almost half the pack arriving within a day of Mitch Seavey.
Mitch Seavey held off a strong challenge from Aliy Zirkle to win Iditarod 2013!
Sunny weather, a smooth flight and mushers coming and going. What more could you want from a visit to this scenic checkpoint? For some of my clients the highlight of the trip was having Jim Tweto, COO of ERA Air and star of the reality show “Flying Wild Alaska”, greet our plane and welcome them to Unalakleet.
Well a big apology to all of you who follow this blog. I went to Chena Hot Springs with one of my tours after the start of the Iditarod, and they didn’t have internet access. We get so used to it, we come to expect it everywhere. But now we are in Nome and I will be posting images regularly. The ceremonial start was interesting with the fog covering 4th Avenue, it made for some images I hadn’t captured before. The race is turning out to be an interesting mix of characters battling for the lead. I think we all expected Dallas to be the Seavey up there with Aliy, not Mitch. Having a local boy like Aaron up at the top makes it more interesting for the residents along the coast here.
Many of the clients on our tour sign up to be volunteer dog handlers at the race start. Smithsonian Journeys Program Coordinator Alyssa Bobst writes about her experience as a volunteer dog handler on her 2009 tour with us: Article
In 2010 I was contracted by Smithsonian Journeys, the travel arm of the Smithsonian Institute, to be a Study Leader and lead a tour of the Iditarod Race for them. The clients had a wonderful and informative experience, with some coming back the next year to go further along the trail with me. As part of their promotion of the tour, I was interviewed about the race for their website and magazine. Here is a link to the Q&A session: Smithsonian Journeys Interview
Well 6 weeks to go until “The Greatest Show on Earth” , or maybe that’s the circus. Either way, 6 weeks until the race begins and it should be a great one! Lots of former champs, recent champs and future champs in the mix. I even saw an old friend of mine-Rudy Demoski – was entered this year. Rudy was in the 1974 race and finished fourth. He raced another half dozen times or so. I’ll look forward to following him along the trail. After a 27 year layoff from dog racing, he should be raring to go.
All of our Iditarod Tours sold out this year and with 8 returning clients I know it will be a fun time.