The Iditarod is set to begin Saturday and it’s only a matter of time before animal-rights activists start to snivel about canine cruelty.
Dubbed the last great race on Earth, the Iditarod is renowned as the world’s premier dog-sledding event. The annual grueling 1,000-mile race stretches a course between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska.
The two-week contest is a sheer trial of endurance against the otherwise bone-chilling Alaskan elements. But animal advocates argue that too many dogs are dying in the subzero temperatures.
With a history dating back to 1973, the Iditarod sees at least one dog death per race. There have been 142 total deaths since the Iditarod’s start, not to mention reports of abuse, according to the Sled Dog Action Coalition. These issues continue to hound the race and despite its tenure as Alaska’s lead sporting event, it’s no coincidence that it’s also the most controversial.
The realm of athletics is a cruel one, so why would dog sledding be any different? The Iditarod idols are a breed of their own and as a born-and-raised Alaskan myself, I can knowingly attest that some of the world’s best athletes can be found at the front of the sled. These canine competitors find thrill in the chill of the frozen, ice-adorned trail that is the Iditarod.
Sought after for their strength and stamina, mixed-breed Alaskan huskies make up the bulk of modern dog sledding. But like any other athletic arena, competitors often cut corners. The Iditarod has recently employed safety measures to evade injuries. Dogs, not mushers, are regularly tested throughout the race for performance enhancing drugs like stimulants and steroids.
With such treacherous terrain, it’s easy to see why race-goers seek shortcuts. Each Iditarod team is comprised of 12 to 16 dogs that plow through blizzards with whiteout conditions and gale-force winds. But who ever said sports are painless?
Florida Panthers’ player Richard Zednik underwent surgery after a teammate’s skate slashed his carotid artery during a hockey game. Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm – and nearly her life – in a shark attack and was back on her board just one month later.
The fact is that, unlike your average hound, these dogs are athletes bred to live for this kind of competition. Just like any athlete, sled dogs demonstrate a raw enthusiasm for their sport. They seem to hold the same sense of satisfaction as their handlers after a long, bitter-cold day on a blustery trail. Some dogs will become injured and few will succumb to the dire weather and staggering workload. It’s unfortunate, but that’s life.
What’s important is that these dogs are doing what they love all while donning that big, sloppy grin.