People everywhere watched in awe recently as Olympic athletes skied for miles, skated for hours and performed amazing physical feats. But even gold medal winners wouldn't be equal to what the dogs in the Iditarod will be forced to do in the next few weeks.
There's nothing sporting about an event in which animals routinely die, as they do in the Iditarod. One dog has already collapsed and died from gastric ulcers during this year's "Junior Iditarod," a test run for young mushers. It's time for this grueling race to be relegated to Alaska's history books.
The Iditarod's 1,150-mile course means that dogs run more than 100 miles a day for almost two weeks straight. They must pull heavy sleds through some of the worst weather conditions on the planet.
The dogs' feet are torn apart by ice and rocks. Many dogs pull muscles, get stress fractures or suffer from diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers.
Mushers ride, eat and sleep while the dogs pull. One musher admitted to smoking pot. The official Iditarod rules only require that the dogs be provided a total of 40 hours of rest--even though the race can take up to two weeks. Many dogs don't survive. Rule 42 of the official Iditarod rules says that some deaths may be considered "unpreventable."
Six dogs died in last year's race alone, including two who were believed to have frozen to death. No records were kept in the early days of the event, but it's estimated that at least 150 dogs have paid with their lives in the Iditarod. And that awful number doesn't include the countless dogs who are killed when they don't make the cut.
Dogs who aren't fast runners or simply aren't inclined to participate are unloaded like defective inventory. Some are killed outright--by bludgeoning or drowning--for not possessing monumental stamina and speed. Manuals and articles written by top mushers openly recommend killing dogs who do not measure up.
Most dogs used in sledding are treated like outdoor equipment. They aren't allowed inside the house with the family, and they never play a game of catch. The vast majority of dogs used in sledding live at the end of a short chain, their entire worlds measured in a few muddy feet.
In a gut-wrenching case last year, dogs used in a sledding operation in Canada's Northwest Territories were found starved and frozen to the ground. A year earlier, 25 dogs were found abandoned with no food or water in a kennel outside Palmer, Alaska. Some were chained on short wires, and many had been nearly starved to death. The dogs' teeth were broken from trying to eat rocks.
You'd think that with Iditarod sponsors dropping out left and right and prize money going down, Iditarod organizers would do everything that they could to improve the race's image. Instead, they shamelessly market this punishing physical ordeal as something that benefits the dogs, and they rarely punish abusive mushers. Musher Ramy Brooks, for example, was caught beating his dogs during the 2007 race, but instead of receiving a lifetime ban, Brooks remains eligible to run.
Alaska is a land of majestic beauty, and it exemplifies the independent spirit of America. But there is nothing majestic or beautiful about running dogs to their deaths, and it's time for it to stop.
Jennifer O'Connor is an animals in entertainment campaign writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.