The Iditarod: The facts aren’t as mushy as you’d think

iditdogsThe 2010 Iditarod has begun.

To those who follow such things, the “animal rights” objections to the Iditarod are to be expected. After all, it’s a grueling race over almost 1100 miles of the harshest terrain in these United States, run by dogs pulling a sled with a person on it. That’s cruel by definition, right?

Sorry, no.

Objectors cite deaths and injuries as the primary evidence that the race is cruel and should be stopped.

But let’s put those numbers in perspective.
Most sources agree that the official number of dog deaths from the Iditarod is 136 since 1973. Critics argue that these numbers do not take into account dogs that die or are euthanized in the weeks or months following the race from injuries sustained while racing. Fair enough, but these are arguably uncountable, as are human deaths from heart attacks a couple of weeks after running a marathon: can’t prove it.
One of the articles we read on this subject recently quoted some unnamed journalist as saying that sled racing was “maybe the cruelest sporting event in America”. First of all, we assume s/he meant the cruelest animal sporting event in America; otherwise, it would obviously be golf. Secondly, that just doesn’t make sense. 136 dogs have died running the Iditarod since 1973; 5000 racehorses have died since 2003, with an average of 3 per day last year. Now, we realize that the same people are most likely trying to put a stop to horse racing, but the number of deaths does not compare.

While the Iditarod is clearly a race, and therefore a “sporting event”, the dogs who participate are working dogs, and pulling a sled is their job. Dog sleds are still widely used in many places in Alaska and Canada for everything from running errands to hunting and trapping. As such, death statistics for other working dogs seem relevant as well: We lost 139 K-9 dogs in the US to gunfire over the same period of time.

We are well aware that most humaniacs become instantly less concerned when the victims of death and abuse are humans rather than animals, but we’d still like to note that we see on average 25 human deaths a year from mountain climbing, 8 or so a year from running marathons, and that there have been 395 human work-related deaths in the United States in the past six months. Perspective, people.
To date, there is only one major charitable organization whose charter includes fostering more humane treatment of both humans and animals.

American Humane Association

Deaths aside, animal “rights” activists have other objections to the Iditarod. There are claims that mushers whip and beat dogs to make them run; unfortunately, most of those claims cite two cases where mushers were subsequently barred from the race. In other words, it’s not permitted, or typical.

Here’s one volunteer vet’s first-person account of working a recent Iditarod.

But lest we seem like one-sided Iditarod proponents, some concerns activists expressed need to be addressed. One has to do with the way that many sled dogs are housed when they are not racing: short leashes tied to stakes, minimal shelter (granting that these are dogs who can obviously take a lot of cold). That seems like it can – and should – be addressed. Get a fence, cheapskate. The second is the practice of “culling”, that is, breeding dogs for racing, keeping only the fastest, and killing the rest. Some activists make an issue of the method of killing (most are shot) but a single gunshot to the head is no less humane than euthanasia.

It’s worth noting that many mushers used to take the puppies that weren’t race-worthy to shelters and shelters objected; given the reality that mushers can’t afford to support dogs they can’t race, what’s a better answer? We don’t have it today, but will be looking for it.

In general, these seem like working dogs to us. Born and bred to do a job, and we see photo after photo like the one above, where the dogs seem healthy, ready, eager, even ecstatic to be doing what they are meant to do. While we would certainly want to see the dogs getting the best possible care year-round, we are continually aware that the desire to “protect” animals often becomes a dangerous kind of pampering, that to deny a working dog a chance to fulfill his or her destiny is every bit as cruel as working it to death.

So, for balance, we’ll offer up this photo, which we coincidentally ran across the same day we were exploring the Iditarod. This dog has obviously not been worked too hard. Better?