Lance Mackey wins Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, controversy surrounds treatment of dogs

Posted By: The Ski Channel on March 17, 2010 3:15 pm

In the past, we’ve reported on the Iditarod, the 1,100-mile sled race with dogs (usually) pulling the sled. We got some great feedback from some readers about the controversy surrounding the race. Thank you for the great commentary, and for informing us and our readers of these controversies. We have two camps of people arguing over this issue, one claims the treatment of the dogs is inhumane and unusually cruel, the other claims the dogs are treated as well as if they were humans. Here are two comments we got, each represents one side of the argument.

Margery Glickman writes:

“For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on Dr. Lou Packer’s team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 142 dogs have died in the race. During training runs, Iditarod dogs have been killed by moose, snowmachines, and various motor vehicles, including a semi tractor and an ATV. They have died from drowning, heart attacks and being strangled in harnesses. Dogs have also been injured while training. They have been gashed, quilled by porcupines, bitten in dog fights, and had broken bones, and torn muscles and tendons. Most dog deaths and injuries during training aren’t even reported. On average, 52 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do finish, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who complete the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race. Iditarod dog kennels are puppy mills. Mushers breed large numbers of dogs and routinely kill unwanted ones, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged, drowned or clubbed to death. “Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses……” wrote former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper. Dog beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…” Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens.. Or dragging them to their death.” During the race, veterinarians do not give the dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep them running. The Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, Stu Nelson, is an employee of the Iditarod Trail Committee. They are the ones who sign his paycheck. So, do you expect that he’s going to say anything negative about the Iditarod? Most Iditarod dogs are forced to live at the end of a chain when they aren’t hauling people around. It has been reported that dogs who don’t make the main team are never taken off-chain. Chained dogs have been attacked by wolves, bears and other animals. Old and arthritic dogs suffer terrible pain in the blistering cold. The Iditarod, with all the evils associated with it, has become a synonym for exploitation. The race imposes torture no dog should be forced to endure. Margery Glickman Director Sled Dog Action Coalition,”

In response, here’s Jo-Anne Dixon:

“I am a recreational musher here in Hailey, and I am a practicing veterinarian here in the Wood River Valley for going on 10 years. I am a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) and I have been a trail veterinarian on two 1000-plus-mile sled dog races. I have done the pre-race veterinary exams for the Iditarod, I have attended three International Sled Dog Veterinary Medicine symposiums and I am here to tell you that Margery Glickman is spreading misinformation about the Iditarod sled dog race and the sport of mushing. The Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) takes great pride in its role of providing excellence in dog care, not only during the race, but through an extensive program of pre-race screening. Before starting the race, all dogs receive an ECG evaluation to check for heart abnormalities and a full panel of blood tests (CBC & chemistry profile), and are permanently identified with microchips. A complete pre-race physical exam is performed on each and every dog by a licensed veterinarian, all vaccinations must be current and all dogs are wormed within 10 days of the start by medication provided by the ITC. Before entering the Iditarod, rookie mushers are required to complete approved qualifying races. This enables them to gain experience in providing the proper care for their teams. In December, rookies also attend a mandatory two-day seminar put on by the ITC to help prepare them for the race. In addition to the high standard of care provided by the mushers themselves, 35 licensed professional veterinarians volunteer their time on the trail to perform routine evaluations and administer any necessary treatments. The dogs get a physical exam from a veterinarian at almost every one of the 27 check points, which is about 27 more than half the dogs in the U.S. ever get in a lifetime. Mushers are able to drop a dog from the race for any reason. Sometimes it is strategic—a big dog that helped them over the mountain part of the race may be too slow for the speed needed on the coastal portion. Sometimes dogs are dropped due to injuries. These dogs are incredible athletes and all athletes, including humans, are at risk of illness or injury when competing in athletic events. To put things in perspective, the risk of mortality for sled dogs per hour of physical activity is less than that for humans engaged in cross-country skiing. In hard numbers, since 1996 the mortality rate for Iditarod sled dogs is 1.3 for every million miles raced—that’s pretty impressive and doesn’t differ much from human marathon athletes. Dropped dogs are monitored continuously by the veterinary staff, including routine re-evaluations after their return to Anchorage. Any dog needing follow-up veterinary care is transported to an appropriate facility before being released from the ITC veterinary staff. Race policies and rules are written with the greatest emphasis on proper care and treatment of the dogs. Any musher found guilty of inhumane treatment would be disqualified and banned from future races. The ISDVMA and the lTC, with the support of sponsors, veterinarians and the mushing community, have initiated a number of exhaustive research studies investigating various conditions affecting sled dogs. Obviously we care enough to look for causes and solutions. In the final analysis, our research studies have enabled us to make significant advancement in sled dog care, and that is positive. Mushing is a sport we do with our dogs because we love our dogs. These dogs are not forced to run anymore than a Labrador is force to retrieve a tennis ball. They run because they love to run, it is as pure and as simple as that. My sled dogs are pets as much as your dogs are pets but they are also incredible athletes and I feel honored to be able to share in their joy when they are running. If you ever get a chance to go dog sledding, you will see what I mean but be careful—it is addictive and you might end up like me with a team of six Alaskan huskies in the back yard or like Trent Herbst up to Alaska the first week in March with the greatest athletes in the world in “The Last Great Race on Earth,” the Iditarod.”

And now here’s Rachel D’Oro’s report on Lance Mackey winning the race this year:

“NOME, Alaska — Lance Mackey has won the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race one more time.

Mackey crossed the finish line in Nome on Tuesday afternoon to become the only musher in the 38-year history of the Iditarod to win four consecutive races.

Mackey was cheered by fans bundled up against subzero temperatures to welcome the 39-year-old throat cancer survivor as his team coasted up the main street of this old Gold Rush town.

For winning, Mackey gets a new Dodge truck and $50,400.

This year’s Iditarod kicked off March 6 with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. That was followed by the competitive start the following day in Willow when 71 teams took to the Iditarod trail and headed to Nome.

“These are my heroes right here,” Mackey said seconds after crossing the finish line as he was giving his dogs a pat on their heads and a kiss. He then planted a kiss on his new truck.

Mackey said his relationship with his team is more rewarding than winning another truck.

“They might not be the fastest team in this race but I think they have the biggest hearts,” he said.

This year’s purse was significantly less than last year when Mackey took home a truck and $69,000. The total purse is $590,000 — down from a high of $925,000 in 2008. Iditarod officials said the struggling economy caused some sponsors to pull their support for the race.

Much of the race again this year was a duel between Mackey — whose father Dick and brother Rick are past winners — and another mushing royal, four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park. King has said this will be his last Iditarod.

King had been leading much of the race but was overtaken by Mackey on Saturday in the village of Kaltag, about 350 miles from the finish. King chose to rest his team and Mackey, renown for his ability to run his dogs long distances with little rest, opted to keep going.

King cut his rest in Unalakleet to pursue Mackey, who widened the lead after that.

But in the final stretch, Hans Gatt of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, chased Mackey hard, pushing ahead of King in Elim on Monday. The 51-year-old musher, a four-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, was expected to arrive second in Nome.

King, 54, was expected to be third. His last Iditarod win was in 2006, before he relinquished the crown to Mackey.

This year’s Iditarod was marked by bitter cold that plunged to 30 below, further chilled by powerful winds in sections of the trail. Mackey, whose cancer treatments left him with circulation problems, complained the cold was affecting his hands and feet.

Still, the trail was a fast run for front-runners including Ken Anderson of Fairbanks, expected to be fourth into Nome, John Baker of Kotzebue and Hugh Neff of Tok.”