Right now, if you're reading this in the comfort of your armchair or a cozy kitchen nook, please give a moment's thought to the dogs who are running through blinding snowstorms, subzero temperatures and howling winds in Alaska's Iditarod. Some will likely not survive. The Iditarod is a life-and-death contest--but only for the four-legged participants.
Dogs routinely pay with their lives in this race. Since no records were kept in the early days of this event, it's impossible to know the exact death toll, but more than 140 dogs are recorded as having perished. That's not including the countless dogs who are killed when breeders decide that they aren't fast enough.
The Iditarod's 1,150-mile course means that dogs run more than 100 miles a day for almost two weeks straight. Their feet become bruised, bloodied, cut by ice and just plain worn out because of the vast distances they cover. Many dogs pull muscles, incur stress fractures or become sick with diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers. Dogs have frozen to death and died from inhaling their own vomit. Sled dog myopathy--being run to death--has claimed many lives.
"Overdriving" or "overworking" an animal is considered a violation of cruelty-to-animals laws in most states--but not in Alaska. There are no race regulations that prohibit whipping a dog, and The Speed Mushing Manual recommends whipping as an effective way to get dogs to run faster.
Mushers ride, eat and sleep (and until it was banned, chilled out smoking pot) while the dogs pull and pull and pull. The official Iditarod rules require that the dogs be given a total of only 40 hours of rest--even though the race can take up to two weeks. Rule 42 of the official Iditarod guidelines states that some deaths may be considered "unpreventable." According to the rule's offensive euphemism, dogs don't "die" -- they "expire."
Dogs love to run, but even the most high-energy dog wouldn't choose to run 100 miles day after day. Iditarod organizers downplay the dogs' suffering and work to hide abuse from the public. Even when mushers are caught beating dogs, as musher Ramy Brooks was in 2007, they barely receive a slap on the wrist. One of Brooks' dogs later died, but rather than banning this bully for life, the Iditarod committee allowed Brooks to race again.
Life for dogs off the trail is equally grim. Most kennels keep dozens of dogs who live on short chains, with only overturned barrels or dilapidated doghouses for shelter. Their world is a 6-foot diameter of mud, ice, feces and urine. Slow runners are discarded like defective equipment. There have been many cases in which chained dogs have been abandoned and left to starve to death. Others have been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death.
Iditarod mushers brag about their "accomplishment," but there's no glory when someone else does all the work. And there's no honor in running dogs to death.
Jennifer O'Connor is an animals-in-entertainment campaign writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.