Sled Dog Deaths Are Downplayed : Iditarod: Although six have died, survival rate is called good by chief veterinarian.


As the leaders neared the end of the 21st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race last week, columnist Mike Doogan of the Anchorage Daily News wrote:

“Right now, ruthless mushers are forcing our non-human animal friends to pull heavy loads over treacherous trails, all in the name of so-called sport. Gaia (the Greek earth goddess) only knows how many of our canine companions will be killed before the last of the sledding species reaches Nome.”

After angry response from Iditafans, Doogan acknowledged that “basically, it was just a gag.”


It also was unhappily prophetic. Six dogs have died, well above the average, and the race isn’t over. One competitor is suing the event for killing her favorite dog.

The first finishers--Jeff King, DeeDee Jonrowe and Rick Mackey--were blessed with ideal conditions and finished in record time last Wednesday. But then, with only 21 teams finished, a surprise storm forced organizers to stop the race for only the third time in its history, leaving mushers and dogs bogged down at checkpoints or in wilderness near the end of the 1,161-mile trail. As of Monday, 41 had finished, with 13 still plodding along.

Veterinarians at all 23 checkpoints look for signs of abuse, illness and injury. But even before conditions turned harsh, three dogs had died. James B. Leach III, the chief veterinarian for the event, thought three out of 1,278 was a reasonable toll.

“In a thousand-mile race, the (survival rate) for these dogs is far higher than somebody with their dog in town every day,” Leach said.

After the first three dogs had died, outdoors editor Craig Medred of the Daily News noted that since the Iditarod started, 57 licensed domestic dogs in Anchorage had died--one for every 114--compared to one for every 426 in the Iditarod. Now it’s one for every 213.

But their point was, none get hit by cars or are put to death because nobody wants them.


The Humane Society of the United States took an especially hard look at the event this year. It was not universally welcomed. The Iditarod has always had rules about dog care, but now they dominate the rule book and, with the Humane Society’s presence, have been tightened some more “to the point of being ridiculous,” said Dick Mackey, Rick’s father and the winner in 1978.

“If the pet owners that belong to the Humane Society took as good care of their dogs as mushers take care of theirs, there’d be no problem,” he says. “But these same people that are apprehensive about the way we treat our dogs have a pet that’s 20 pounds overweight (and) leave him in an apartment all day, lock him up in a car and don’t walk him around the block (for exercise).”

Mushers, already subject to disqualification for mistreatment of dogs, are now subject to lifetime bans. The two mandatory rest stops were increased from 24 hours to 30 and from six to 12, and not with any concern for weary mushers. Teams were required to finish with a minimum of eight dogs instead of five, so as not to work their best dogs too hard.

Four-time winner Susan Butcher finished with eight and said three weren’t pulling their weight--an indication that they were too sick or tired. Under the old rule, she might have dropped them off along the way, a common practice.

Said Mike Owens, a Nome paramedic and two-time competitor who didn’t race this year: “A lot of people run seven dogs all over this state. Some things they did this year were for cosmetic reasons.”

The Iditarod is the main reason interest in sled dog racing has spread to Europe, where it commands media attention that attracts commercial sponsors. The world is watching, and the world loves dogs. No sponsor wants to be connected with animal abuse.

“I’ve felt pressure through the sponsors,” Leach said. “They’re up here looking at the race because they have concerns--the same concerns that we have. We welcome that.”

We? The Daily News asked its readers during the race, “Should the Humane Society butt out of Alaska?”

The response was 91% yes, 9% no.

Said Dick Mackey: “Several years ago we didn’t know how to properly care for a dog over a two- or three-week race. I had the first dog that died in the Iditarod, in the first race. Come to find out he had an (unknown) ailment.

“We had one veterinarian. The next year we had two or three, and now the veterinarians are swarming everywhere. Now the mushers know what is acceptable--what the public will accept--and I think that we should stand up and shout, ‘OK, you’ve done your thing, now go away. Go tend to somebody else that needs their act cleaned up. If you keep harping on it, you’re going to scare off the sponsors. You’re going to turn people against what is a good event.’ ” In this year’s race, a dog belonging to Laird Barron died in a trail accident when the team became entangled in itself.

Another died when Rick Townsend’s team bolted off the trail chasing a fox. It stumbled in the snow and snapped its neck.

A dog in Claire Philip’s team died of a non-injury cause to be determined in a laboratory.

After the storm hit, a race official found Bev Masek hunkered down along the trail and told her to leave her dogs behind as he took her to shelter on a snowmobile. Other officials tried to lead her dogs to a checkpoint before she returned, and her 12-year-old lead dog, Sugar, died en route.

Then, when she finally reached Nome with her surviving dogs, Masek was ruled a dropout for receiving assistance. But she was far more distraught over the loss of the dog. “One of the saddest moments I’ve seen in 16 years of being involved in this race,” Nome Mayor John Handeland said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the (finish) chute.”

Masek announced Monday she is suing the Iditarod.

One of Frank Teasley’s dogs, Bones, was killed when it inexplicably bolted from the team and was dragged 100 yards before he could stop.

And Diana Dronenburg lost one during the mandatory 12-hour rest at White Mountain to a respiratory illness.

Also, most teams this year suffered suspected food poisoning. Leach thinks it was related to the unusually warm weather that thawed out dog food caches along the trail.

Yet the pace of the race was such that despite the additional 12 hours of mandatory rest time, the first three all broke the record of 10 days 19 hours 17 minutes set by Martin Buser last year. King led the way in 10:15:38, while Butcher, finishing fourth, and five-time winner Rick Swenson, who was ninth, ran faster than in any of their victories.

Are the dogs being driven too hard? “You cannot hurt a dog by running it,” Dick Mackey said. “When it gets so tired, it’ll just lie down. And there is nothing in this world that’ll make that dog stand up and go again (until) it feels like going again. The dogs run only on voice command. No reins or whips are used, and even the term running is not entirely accurate. Half the time between Anchorage and Nome is spent resting, and when pulling the sleds they average no more than 8 or 9 m.p.h.--more a fast trot than a gallop.

“There is nothing wrong with a tired dog, as long as it’s not an injured dog,” Mackey said. *

In the finish chute at Nome, the dogs, still in harness, are checked by veterinarians as their musher is greeted and interviewed under the burl arch. Some dogs lie down or sit and scratch, others remain standing. Some have their ribs showing--they lose three or four pounds during the race--but none seem on the point of collapse.

“I have not seen any come into Nome that were not perfectly capable of turning around and running halfway back,” Leach said.

Even Butcher’s looked good, even if all weren’t pulling, he said.

“The dogs learn to rest while they run,” Leach said. “They ease back and let everybody else do the job for a while.” Butcher: “One of the hardest things for our sport is overcoming the Jack London stories. In the old days, there probably were people that were very abusive to their dogs, but almost everybody who gets involved with dog mushing gets involved because they love dogs.

“And if you don’t want to give credit to the mushers for having concern for their dogs, it has been proven time after time that the best way to win is to take the best care of your dogs.”

After the race, handlers lead the dogs farther down Front Street to an impound area where they are fed and bedded down in straw on the snow. Random blood, fecal and urine samples are taken. The anti-drug rules are as strict as any in sports, but Dick Mackey is convinced no irregularities will ever be found.

“In 30-some years of (sled) dog racing, I have never known of an instance where a dog was drugged,” Mackey said. “Can you say that about horse racing? Greyhound racing?”

Said Leach: “It is not reasonable to say this is hard on the dogs. You can see these tail-waggers and how happy they are. Sure, they’re tired. But people will dwell on the deaths, and it is unfortunate. We care about every one of those dogs.”