Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
History of the Race
Contrary to popular belief, the Iditarod race was not created to mimic the serum ride from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1967 as two 25 mile races to honor mushers and sled dogs. The race took place over a portion of the Historical Iditarod Trail and ended in Nome. In 1973 they expanded it into the 1,150 mile event it is today.
Very little of today’s Iditarod resembles the serum run. When the disease diphtheria struck in Nome, the medicine that was needed to treat the disease was located in Anchorage. A train carried the serum to the town of Nenana. Twenty different dog teams then transported the medicine in a relay race 674 miles to Nome in a remarkable time of 27.5 hours, with no dog running more than 92 miles. The race trail today is twice as long and covers only a portion of the historical trail.
Today’s Iditarod race covers 1,150 miles between Anchorage and Nome and typically takes 9-12 days to complete. (The 2011 winner came in under 9 days.) This is the equivalent of dogs traveling from NY to Miami, or L.A. to Seattle, running 125 miles per day for 9 days. There are typically 1,000 dogs per race and approximately 70 teams competing. Each team consists of 1 musher with 12-16 dogs, of which at least 6 must finish the race. Checkpoints along the trail are staffed by veterinarians, but there is no requirement for the dogs to be examined by a vet. Each team is required to take one 24 hr break and two 8 hr breaks. In most states keeping a dog outdoors in extreme weather would be animal cruelty, but in the Iditarod it’s actually required for dogs to remain outdoors, even during breaks. The race takes place in early March, and teams frequently race through blizzards in –50 degree F temperatures and 60-80 mph winds.
Injuries & Death
On average, 53% of the dogs don’t finish the race due to injury, illness or death. At least 1 dog usually dies per race, though in 2008 three dogs died, and in 2009 five dogs died. At least 150 dogs have died since they began keeping record in 1973. It is unknown how many dogs die afterwards from race-related injuries, or during the training season. Recent reports state 81% of dogs have lung damage after finishing, and 61% have ulcers. Dogs typically succumb to hypothermia, gastric ulcers, pneumonia, heart failure, or “Sled Dog Myopathy” in which the dog literally runs to death. Some dogs are killed getting strangled by towlines, hit by snow machines or getting gouged by the sled. Their feet often become bruised and bloodied, they pull muscles, and suffer stress fractures. There are no rules against mushers whipping the dogs, and there have been numerous eye-witness accounts of mushers hitting dogs that are too sick or exhausted to run any more. Alaska’s anti-cruelty law specifically exempts “generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests.”
Not every dog bred for sled racing is a fast runner. It is common practice for puppies to be killed if they don’t meet high standards. In Alaska the nearest vet might be a few hours away, so often dogs are simply shot or bludgeoned rather than humanely euthanized. The dogs that do survive the culling are not kept inside the house as a cherished family pet. They typically live outdoors on short chains with substandard kennels.
What Can I do to Help?
Large corporations are largely responsible for keeping the Iditarod alive. Sponsorship is the biggest source of revenue for the race, and the top 30 finishers receive a cash prize. If you believe the treatment of sled dogs in the Iditarod is cruel, contact the corporate sponsors and request that they stop funding this event.