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The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Animal Cruelty

Why do Animal Activists Object to the Iditarod?


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Updated June 16, 2014

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a sled dog race from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska, a route that is over 1,100 miles long. Aside from basic animal rights arguments against using dogs for entertainment or to pull sleds, many people object to the Iditarod because of the animal cruelty and deaths involved.

“[J]agged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast . . . 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 this a description of the Iditarod from PETA’s point of view? No, it’s from the official Iditarod website.

The death of a dog in the 2013 Iditarod has prompted race organizers to improve protocols for dogs removed from the race.

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod Trail is a National Historic Trail, and was established as a route for dog sleds to access remote, snowbound areas during the 1909 Alaskan gold rush. In 1967, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began as a much shorter sled dog race, over a portion of the Iditarod Trail. In 1973, race organizers turned the Iditarod Race into the grueling 9-12 day race that it is today, ending in Nome, AK. As the official Iditarod website puts it, “There were many who believed it was crazy to send a bunch of mushers out into the vast uninhabited Alaskan wilderness.”

The Iditarod Today

The rules for the 2009 Iditarod require teams of one musher with 12 to 16 dogs, with at least six dogs crossing the finish line. The musher is the human driver of the sled. Anyone who has been convicted of animal cruelty or animal neglect in Alaska is disqualified from being a musher in the Iditarod. The race requires the teams to take three mandatory breaks.

Compared to previous years, the entry fee is up and the purse is down for 2009. The entry fee for the 2009 Iditarod is $4,000. The entire purse is $610,000, with $69,000 and a new pickup truck going to the winner. Every musher who finishes in the top 30 receives a cash prize, and those finishing out of the top 30 will receive $1,049 each. Sixty-nine teams are competing in 2009.

Inherent Cruelty in the Race

According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, at least 136 dogs have died in the Iditarod or as a result of running in the Iditarod. The race organizers, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), simultaneously romanticize the unforgiving terrain and weather encountered by the dogs and mushers, while arguing that the race is not cruel to the dogs. Even during their breaks, the dogs are required to remain outdoors except when being examined or treated by a veterinarian. In most U.S. states, keeping a dog outdoors for twelve days in freezing weather would warrant an animal cruelty conviction, but Alskan animal cruelty statutes exempt standard dog mushing practices: "This section does not apply to generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests or practices or rodeos or stock contests." A.S. 11.61.140(e). Instead of being an act of animal cruelty, this exposure is a requirement of the Iditarod.

At the same time, Iditarod rules prohibit “cruel or inhumane treatment of the dogs.” A musher may be disqualified if a dog dies of abusive treatment, but the musher will not be disqualified if “the cause of death is due to a circumstance, nature of trail, or force beyond the control of the musher. This recognizes the inherent risks of wilderness travel.” Again, if a person in another state forced their dog to run over 1,100 miles through ice and snow and the dog died, they would probably be convicted of animal cruelty. It is because of the inherent risks of running the dogs across a frozen tundra in sub-zero weather for twelve days that many believe the Iditarod should be stopped.

The official Iditarod rules for 2009 state, “All dog deaths are regrettable, but there are some that may be considered unpreventable.” Although the ITC may consider some dog deaths unpreventable, a sure way to prevent the deaths is to stop the Iditarod.

Inadequate Veterinary Care

Although race checkpoints are staffed by veterinarians, mushers sometimes skip check points and there is no requirement for the dogs to be examined by veterinarians at the checkpoints. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, most of the Iditarod veterinarians belong to the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, an organization that promotes sled dog races. Instead of being impartial caregivers for the dogs, they have a vested interest, and in some cases, a financial interest, in promoting sled dog racing. Iditarod veterinarians have even allowed sick dogs to continue running, and compared dog deaths to the deaths of willing human athletes. However, no human athlete has ever died in the Iditarod.

Click on Page 2 to learn about intentional abuse and cruelty, breeding and culling, changes after a dog death in 2013, and what you can do.

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