Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dog Sledding's Dark Side

The world-famous Iditarod dog-sled race took off  today from its traditional Anchorage, Alaska starting gate, bound for Nome.  For two weeks, about 60 contestants drive their teams of 12-16 dogs across treacherous terrain covering over 1000 miles.  The race is a commemoration of the the dog-sledders who saved the lives of residents of Nome in 1925, when a diphtheria outbreak required dog-sled teams to carry life-saving medicines to the stricken.  The trail itself has been preserved as a National Historic trail.

I wonder, though, if this gruelling and dangerous race, which the Iditarod's own web site describes as
"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" is fair to the dogs who have no choice in the matter.

Of course, those who work closely with mushers and their dogs claim that the dogs "love" to run and that they are born for it. On the other hand, since the race became an official event in 1973, over 140 dogs have died in the race due to freezing, illness or injury.

The Iditarod seems to be rooted in a tradition and culture of regarding dogs as property ready to be discarded if they are unable to perform.  I saw a heart-rending article recently about a British Columbian sled-dog tourist attraction, Outdoor Adventures Whistler, which experienced losses in business following a downturn tourism after the 2010 Olympics, and indiscriminately slaughtered about 100 of its dogs.  The article in the February 5 (among other sources like the Calgary Herald) described how
 "...over 100 dogs were shot or had their throats cut while tethered after business took a downturn." The bodies were thrown into a mass grave. The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is investigating the slaughter, as are local police....."
Apparently this is not all that unusual treatment for sled dogs that become ill, lose their speed, or become otherwise unwanted.

I have used my journal as a single voice in a collective shout of condemnation against animal cruelty, which exists far and wide beyond the dog-sledding industry.

While I applaud the intent of the Iditarod for its commemoration of important history, and while I can appreciate the sincere love most mushers have for their dogs, I believe that the very act of running dogs in this treacherous event, knowing what the risks are, is inhumane.  Time for a new way to mark Alaskan history, or to create a token "run" for a short duration in better conditions.  

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Here's a video covering the terrible incident in British Columbia from The Associated Press...Be forewarned: It is saddening and infuriating... 

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