A good treat or bad treatment?
This past Saturday marked the beginning of the 33rd annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, which begins in Anchorage, ends in Nome and lasts from eight to 15 days.
The beginning of the race also marks the day in which animal rights activists began shouting louder about the treatment of the sled dogs and all across the country, various writers take issue with the race.
In reality, besides just being the premier sled dog event in the world, the race also holds the distinction of being a highly criticized and protested sporting event.
Perhaps one of the leading opponents of the Iditarod is a Florida-based Web site, http://www.helpsleddogs.org, sponsored by an animal rights organization named the Sled Dog Action Coalition.
The site’s mission statement reads, “Committed to improving the lives of Iditarod sled dogs and providing truthful information about their treatment.”
On the site, visitors can learn about the 122 dogs that died while competing in the race, general information about the race, numerous stories and columns voicing displeasure with the race, veterinarian involvement in the race, certain mushing groups and their violation of animal rights, as well as the distinction drawn between recreational mushing and the Iditarod.
The most basic arguments many critics of sled dog racing have posed are that racing is not the dog’s choice, that the animals are forced to race against their will and are pushed to inhumane limits. They push those arguments further to say that sled dog racing is so inhumane that the dogs are even killed while competing.
On the coalition’s site, USA Today sports columnist Jon Saraceno has numerous columns posted reflecting his outrage toward the Iditarod, a race he nicknamed the “Ihurtadog.”
“It’s not entertainment. It’s embarrassment,” Saraceno writes in one piece. “And it can be deadly – but only if you’re the sled dog.”
Another article posted on the site from Miami Herald writer Greg Cote reads, “It is March Madness of a too liberal sort.”
The Flip Side
Barbara Schaefer, featured in Tuesday’s “Pacing the Pack,” a three-part series about sled dogs, spent 10 consecutive years, ending in 2001, working the dog drop station on the Iditarod trail.
When Schaefer first began volunteering at the Iditarod, mushers could begin the 1,150 mile race with 20 dogs, but only had to finish with seven dogs. Numerous checkpoints are set up where dogs who are sick, too tired or too old to go on can be dropped from the race and be cared for by a dog drop volunteer. It was at these checkpoints or dog drops that Schaefer would care for any dogs needing help. She would also feed and walk the dogs and make travel arrangements for the dogs to reunite with their mushers.
It is because of this time spent on the Iditarod trail that Schaefer says criticism of the sport, or the Iditarod race itself, is often completely inaccurate.
“I urge people to actually go and see the race and visit the musher’s kennels,” Schaefer said. “The dogs just dote on the musher’s every word and are always looking to see where their musher is going. Mushers have a better connection with each of their dogs than most people have with their house pets.”
She also points out that while she believes the majority of mushers have good hearts and are in the sport for the right reasons, it is possible to have some rotten apples in the group.
But, she said, it’s unfair to judge the entire group by the actions of some.
In a letter to the editor of The Citizen, a paper in Laconia, New Hampshire, George Hampton, a musher and breeder of sled dogs, writes, “Granted, in any situation that involves dependents, be they animals, children, or perhaps the elderly, there is a potential for exploitation and abuse, but this does not describe the practices or the overwhelming majority of sled dog drivers.”
Schaefer also takes issue with anti-mushing groups claiming that a large number of dogs are dying because of the sport. She points out, for example, that if the Iditarod has 50 mushers in the race and each musher carries 15 dogs, that brings the total to 750 dogs in the race. If one to three dogs die during the course of the race, it is a very small percentage.
“On occasion dogs will die and when it happens it’s horrible and it’s a tragedy, but it’s really a small percentage,” Schaefer said. “If you look at that number of dogs in Nevada County over a two-week period, how many dogs do you think will die of freak causes like being hit by a car, eating anti-freeze or dying of natural causes?”
As for the question about dogs not being free to choose to run, Schaefer also quickly dismisses that idea, saying that these dogs live to run.
“If you watch the dogs that are left home, they are heartbroken,” Schaefer said. “There is nothing more glorious on earth than racing for the dogs. There is no way to force a dog to go 1,000 miles if it doesn’t want to go.
“You could maybe talk it into going 10 miles, but to go 1,000 miles the dog has to live for it.”
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