The Iditarod and Animal Cruelty

Siberian huskies in an Iditarod race.

Daniel A. Leifheit / Moment / Getty Images

The Iditarod Trail dog sled race is a sled dog race from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska, a route that is over 1,100 miles long. Aside from basic animal rights arguments against using dogs for entertainment or to pull sleds, many people object to the Iditarod because of the animal cruelty and deaths involved.

“[J]agged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast . . . temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills.”

This is from the official Iditarod website.

The death of a dog in the 2013 Iditarod has prompted race organizers to improve protocols for dogs removed from the race.

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod Trail is a National Historic Trail and was established as a route for dog sleds to access remote, snowbound areas during the 1909 Alaskan gold rush. In 1967, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began as a much shorter sled dog race, over a portion of the Iditarod Trail. In 1973, race organizers turned the Iditarod Race into the grueling 9-12 day race that it is today, ending in Nome, AK. As the official Iditarod website puts it, “There were many who believed it was crazy to send a bunch of mushers out into the vast uninhabited Alaskan wilderness.”

The Iditarod Today

The rules for the Iditarod require teams of one musher with 12 to 16 dogs, with at least six dogs crossing the finish line. The musher is the human driver of the sled. Anyone who has been convicted of animal cruelty or animal neglect in Alaska is disqualified from being a musher in the Iditarod. The race requires the teams to take three mandatory breaks.

Compared to previous years, the entry fee is up and the purse is down. Every musher who finishes in the top 30 receives a cash prize.

Inherent Cruelty in the Race

According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, at least 136 dogs have died in the Iditarod or as a result of running in the Iditarod. The race organizers, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), simultaneously romanticize the unforgiving terrain and weather encountered by the dogs and mushers, while arguing that the race is not cruel to the dogs. Even during their breaks, the dogs are required to remain outdoors except when being examined or treated by a veterinarian. In most U.S. states, keeping a dog outdoors for twelve days in freezing weather would warrant an animal cruelty conviction, but Alaskan animal cruelty statutes exempt standard dog mushing practices: "This section does not apply to generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests or practices or rodeos or stock contests." Instead of being an act of animal cruelty, this exposure is a requirement of the Iditarod.

At the same time, Iditarod rules prohibit “cruel or inhumane treatment of the dogs.” A musher may be disqualified if a dog dies of abusive treatment, but the musher will not be disqualified if

“[T]he cause of death is due to a circumstance, nature of the trail, or force beyond the control of the musher. This recognizes the inherent risks of wilderness travel.”

If a person in another state forced their dog to run over 1,100 miles through ice and snow and the dog died, they would probably be convicted of animal cruelty. It is because of the inherent risks of running the dogs across a frozen tundra in sub-zero weather for twelve days that many believe the Iditarod should be stopped.

The official Iditarod rules state, “All dog deaths are regrettable, but there are some that may be considered unpreventable.” Although the ITC may consider some dog deaths unpreventable, a sure way to prevent the deaths is to stop the Iditarod.

Inadequate Veterinary Care

Although race checkpoints are staffed by veterinarians, mushers sometimes skip checkpoints and there is no requirement for the dogs to be examined. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, most of the Iditarod veterinarians belong to the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, an organization that promotes sled dog races. Instead of being impartial caregivers for the dogs, they have a vested interest, and in some cases, a financial interest, in promoting sled dog racing. Iditarod veterinarians have even allowed sick dogs to continue running and compared dog deaths to the deaths of willing human athletes. However, no human athlete has ever died in the Iditarod.

Intentional Abuse and Cruelty

Concerns about intentional abuse and cruelty beyond the rigors of the race are also valid. According to an ESPN article:

"Two-time runner-up Ramy Brooks was disqualified from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for abusing his dogs. The 38-year-old Brooks hit each of his 10 dogs with a trail marking lathe, similar to a surveyor's stake, after two refused to get up and continue running on an ice field [...] Jerry Riley, winner of the 1976 Iditarod, was banned for life from the race in 1990 after he dropped a dog in White Mountain without informing veterinarians the animal was injured. Nine years later, he was allowed back in the race."

One of Brooks’ dogs later died during the 2007 Iditarod, but the death was believed to be unrelated to the beating.

Although Brooks was disqualified for beating his dogs, nothing in the Iditarod rules prohibits mushers from whipping the dogs. This quote from The Speed Mushing Manual, by Jim Welch, appears on the Sled Dog Action Coalition:

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 [...] A whip is a very humane training tool [...] Never say 'whoa' if you intend to stop to whip a dog [...] So without saying 'whoa' you plant the hook, run up the side 'Fido' is on, grab the back of his harness, pull back enough so that there is slack in the tug line, say 'Fido, get up' immediately rapping his hind end with a whip.

As if dog deaths were not enough, the rules allow mushers to kill moose, caribou, buffalo, and other large animals “in defense of life or property” along with the race. If the mushers were not racing in the Iditarod, they wouldn’t encounter wild animals defending their territory.

Breeding and Culling

Many of the mushers breed their own dogs for use in the Iditarod and other sled dog races. Few dogs can become champions, so it is common practice to cull unprofitable dogs.

An email from former musher Ashley Keith to the Sled Dog Action Coalition explains:

"When I was active in the mushing community, other mushers were open with me about the fact that larger Iditarod kennels frequently disposed of dogs by shooting them, drowning them or setting them loose to fend for themselves in the wilderness. This was especially true in Alaska, they said, where veterinarians were often hours away. They often used the phrase 'Bullets are cheaper.' And they noted that it's more practical for mushers in remote parts of Alaska to do it themselves."

The Mushers

Although the mushers endure some of the same harsh conditions faced by the dogs, the mushers decide voluntarily to run the race and are fully aware of the risks involved. The dogs do not make such decisions knowingly or voluntarily. The mushers can also voluntarily decide to drop out and walk away when the race is too difficult. In contrast, individual dogs are dropped from the team when they are sick, injured or dead. Furthermore, the mushers are not whipped if they are going too slow.

Changes After Dog Death in 2013

In the 2013 Iditarod, a dog named Dorado was removed from the race because he was "moving stiffly." Dorado's musher, Paige Drobny, continued the race and, following standard protocol, Dorado was left outside in the cold and the snow at a checkpoint. Dorado died of asphyxiation after being buried in snow, although seven other dogs who were also covered in snow survived.

As a result of Dorado's death, race organizers plan to build dog shelters at two checkpoints and also check on the dropped dogs more frequently. More flights will also be scheduled to transport dropped dogs from checkpoints that are not accessible via roads.

What can I do?

You don't have to be a member of PETA to believe in animal rights.

Even with the entry fee, the Iditarod loses money on each musher, so the race relies on money from corporate sponsors. Urge the sponsors to stop supporting animal cruelty, and boycott sponsors of the Iditarod. The Sled Dog Action Coalition has a list of sponsors as well as a sample letter.