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Iditarod suffering begins even before the starting line

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People everywhere were rightfully outraged by a recent report that 100 dogs were shot or had their throats cut when business waned at a British Columbia, Canada, sledding operation. But this was no isolated incident. Dogs who are used to pull sleds--including those in the upcoming Iditarod--routinely pay with their lives.

Dogs used in the Iditarod, its cousin the Yukon Quest or one of the commercial operations catering to tourists live and often die at the end of a chain. All over Alaska and Canada, dogs spend their nonworking hours tethered by short chains to metal barrels or ramshackle wooden boxes, living, eating and sleeping amid their own urine and feces. The hobbled-together "houses" offer little protection from the elements. Water buckets are frequently frozen or tipped over. The dogs are fed scraps and slop and may never see a veterinarian in their lifetime.

The Iditarod plays a big part in this cruel cycle. Countless dogs are bred every year in the quest to produce a "good" runner. Those deemed fast enough face a lifetime of toil in the harshest of conditions. Those found lacking are doomed. There have been many cases in which dogs have been abandoned and left to starve. Dead dogs have been found chained and frozen to the ground.

Although organizers attempt to spin the race as a tradition, winning the Iditarod is all about bragging rights and the cash and truck that are awarded as prizes. It's odd that many schoolteachers "adopt" a musher for their class to track: The only lesson this teaches is that dogs are expendable--that it is all right to force them to risk their lives in a grueling endeavor that benefits only the people who are trying for a cash prize. In fact, it was a grade-school teacher who witnessed musher Ramy Brooks kicking and beating his exhausted dogs during the 2007 race. One dog later died, but instead of receiving a lifetime ban, Brooks remains eligible to run.

This is typical: Dead dogs are viewed as lost "inventory," and punishment for losing a dog is minimal.

Two of the six dogs who died in 2009 were believed to have frozen to death. Musher Lou Packer admitted that he could feel ice crystals clinging to the skin of one of the dogs before he died. Since overworking or overdriving an animal isn't illegal in Alaska, dead dogs will never get justice. Veterinarian Barbara Hodges points out, "The race would violate animal cruelty laws " in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Of course, Alaska has no such law."

The deaths have not gone unnoticed. USA Today columnist Jon Saraceno said of the Iditarod, "This sick marathon is operated by masquerading mercenaries who romanticize the race as some sort of noble man vs. nature test of endurance. It's really shameful marketing carried out on the backs of defenseless animals." Ev en the Anchorage Daily News, a staunch supporter of the race, called the number of dog deaths "troubling" in a 2009 article.

Mushers enjoy taking the credit for finishing the race, but the burden falls on the dogs. While the mushers are spending their time riding and sleeping on the sled, the dogs are pulling it as far as 100 miles a day. The Iditarod can take up to two weeks to complete.

Dogs are our friends, our companions and members of our family. They should be taken for romps in the park, not forced to run to their death. People who care about dogs should condemn the Iditarod and any commercial operation that treats dogs as disposable inventory.

Jennifer O'Connor is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

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