The image has been part of the Alaska mystique since Jack London: a team of lunging, yipping huskies fearlessly pulling their master’s sled down a frozen trail.
Dog mushing is Alaska’s official sport, a growing weekend pastime and a minor industry. Annual events such as the 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, to begin this year on Feb. 29, have mushroomed to include network television deals and corporate sponsorships. Professional mushers appear in TV commercials pitching everything from dog food to long-distance telephone service. This winter, a line of dog musher bubble gum cards was introduced.
Yet a cloud of controversy has crept over the sport in recent months, and some mushers are now openly debating the future of competitive mushing. This was the year that dog mushing met the “animal rights” movement, and some mushers are scrambling to defend their sport against bad publicity. They say the actions of a few uneducated mushers are ruining the sport’s name.
It began last spring when a representative of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal protection group with 1.2 million members, came north to observe the Iditarod. The trek each year attracts as many as 75 competitors, with more than 1,500 dogs, for a grueling race across mountains, forests and tundra that sometimes takes as long as three weeks.
The observers didn’t like what they saw and alleged a number of abuses. The group began pressing race organizers for changes, such as added rest stops, an end to the renting of dog teams to inexperienced mushers and better care for the dogs that are pulled from the race because of fatigue or sickness.
Then, last fall, the sport’s image received a sharper blow: musher Frank Winkler was charged in criminal court with 28 counts of animal cruelty. He allegedly used the blunt end of an ax to bludgeon to death a litter of unwanted puppies. A neighbor heard whimpering and discovered a pile of dogs in the back of Winkler’s truck.
Winkler has pleaded not guilty. He said he understood it was common practice to weed out unwanted or undesirable dogs. He said he couldn’t afford to have the pups put to sleep.
“It’s the ugly side of the sport,” said David Wells, a Humane Society vice president in Washington, D.C. “We believe it’s much more commonplace than most mushers want to admit.”
Mushers argue that while there is some culling of dogs--it’s inevitable in any large-scale animal breeding operation--it is not commonplace and that more humane methods than bludgeoning are used by almost everyone. Top mushers can often give away their unwanted puppies, they say.
After the cruelty charges, some of the best-known mushers went public with previously unheard criticisms. At a dog-sledding symposium in Fairbanks, four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher startled fellow mushers.
“I want to say something . . . about this humane thing,” Butcher said. “There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in dog mushing. We wouldn’t, as a group, pass anybody’s idea of humane treatment of animals. As a group, we don’t pass my standards of humane treatment of animals.”
She said that some mushers mistreat their dogs and are making everyone else look bad.
“These people are out there abusing their animals. I hope this sport does die if we can’t, as a group, educate each other and work together to clean up our act.”
A new mushers’s group was formed this winter with the aim of improving musher education and treatment of dogs. Iditarod officials adopted some of the humane group’s suggestions, but some mushers question how effective the reform effort will be, and even whether it is needed. With hundreds of mushers, from professionals with large kennels to amateurs, it is impossible to control how they all behave, they say.
The problem, Fairbanks musher Lloyd Lowry said, is that some mushers are just now coming to grips with modern sensibilities toward animals. He thinks the problems lie mostly with “old school” mushers and those who don’t know better.
Today’s sled dogs evolved partly from dogs used in Alaska’s native villages, Lowry noted.
‘You treated them as well as you could afford to,” Lowry said. ‘The strong ones, the friendly ones, the ones that didn’t kill the kids, you kept.” The rest were killed, and, over time, the village dogs became stronger. Mushers can limit the number of unwanted pups through selective breeding, Lowry said.
“Most sled dogs today are treated better than your average pet,” said Lowry, a marine mammal biologist. He and his wife, a former world champion sprint musher, keep 30 dogs.
Wells, of the Humane Society, softened his attitude toward mushing after he spent several days this winter visiting Butcher and several other Alaska mushers. He had maintained it was unethical to use dogs in grueling races such as the Iditarod, but now regards it as acceptable--if the sport cleans up its act.
“When you mix fame and money, it’s easy to see the potential for abuse,” he said.