Yesterday, an article ran on Fox Sports (below) about the death of a sled dog during the Iditarod.  Never mind the fact that the cause of death has not yet been determined, nor the circumstances surrounding the death, yet there were 24 pages of comments on the articles.  Granted, most comments on both sides were relatively unintelligent and leaning to vast extremes, but still, it was frustrating to read so much hate toward the musher and the sport itself.  So, since I don’t believe in registering just to leave a comment (and I don’t want to argue with closed-minded ignorance anyway), I’ll post my opinions here.

I have a hard time considering a race with multiple, mandatory veterinary checkpoints to be animal cruelty.  Somehow, I think that if there were gross atrocities being committed on a regular basis, we would have heard about it by now.  I’ve seen people trying to use books and media articles from nearly 20 years ago as “evidence” of ongoing cruelty.  Please.  Two old newspaper articles and one old book hardly constitutes “research.”  True research would involve actually visiting the living conditions of these dogs, watching the race, perhaps participating in one of the checkpoints to evaluate for oneself the ethics of the race.  Boycotting alltogether because you don’t “agree” with something you read on Fox Sports (there’s an unbiased source) is just plain ignorance, and intentional ignorance at that.  I can’t discuss matters like this with people who choose to be ignorant.

For those who say that Alaska has “evolved” past dog sleds:  I hope those people realize that a vast majority of Alaska is only accessible by dog sled or airplane.  Since airplanes require a lot of money (and that pesky, all-important license), most people choose dog sleds.  This sort of work is not something that these dogs are unaccustomed to.  Plus, these dogs are not just thrown out there.  They are trained well for years before being allowed to run.  If that isn’t enough, most of these dogs are fed specialized diets.  They have custom-made equipment to ensure that they are well-taken care of along the way.  It’s not like a brand-new puppy is just thrown out into the elements.  And just for future arguments, puppies that don’t meet the standards aren’t “bludgeoned to death.”  In fact, a lot of mushers keep the dogs that don’t race because they can’t bear to let them go.  Or they are adopted out for pets.  You never hear this side of it though.

On my honeymoon to Alaska (which was last June), I had the pleasure of visiting one of these training camps.  I’ll be honest — I thought it was rather hokey at first.  Getting to ride in a “dog sled” (a big cart on wheels) sounded like a tourist trap.  However, once we got there, I learned that, not only was it a tourist stop, it was a legitimate training organization.  There were probably close to 50 dogs there, all looking quite healthy, and all very excited.  They informed us that the “carts” we rode in were part of the training regimen.  The dogs were so excited to run that they had to chain the carts to the ground to keep the dogs from running off with them.  Along the trail, we took multiple breaks to allow the dogs proper rest and recovery time.  When we came back, the dogs were given water and taken back to their houses.  We got to see the booties that the dogs run with, and each of us got a “souvinier” bootie, a real one that had been retired.  A bootie is immediately retired if it begins to show signs of wear.  A musher takes multiple sets of booties for each of his dogs along the race to protect the dog’s feet.  If a dog shows any sign of illness, it is immediately pulled from the race and given veterinary care.  If it is severe enough, the dog is flown home.  All of these are REQUIRED by the Iditarod board.  These standards of care are not optional for the racers.  Somehow, I’m having a hard time seeing the cruelty of all this.  Then again, I’m not basing my opinions on poorly-researched media articles written to spark controversy and get ratings.

I believe the statistics are 133 dogs have died in the last 36 years.  That’s less than 4 dogs a year. And nowhere did I read that those dogs died due to overwork or injuries due to being beaten.  How many times has a person taken their beloved pet to the vet for a routine checkup to find out that their seemingly-healthy dog has only a month to live?  Dogs don’t always show signs of being sick.  It’s simply the way animals work.  They don’t play up their illnesses to garner sympathy like humans do — they try to hide their weakness, because if they lived in the wild, showing weakness could result in immediate death at the jaws of other animals.  So they don’t always “tell” us when they are sick.  Until the results come back, there is no way of knowing how this dog died.  I’d be willing to bet that, unless it is something dramatic or controversial, we won’t hear about it.

Cruelty is taking one of these dogs and forcing it to live as a housepet.  These dogs need to run and work or it will literally go crazy.  The same training camp I visited had a malamute that was surrendered when the owners could not take care of it.  The dog basically went insane from boredom.  There is plenty of veterinary research out there on the subject.  Destructive behaviors, self-mutilation, even aggression can all result from a dog simply not having enough to do.  These dogs WANT to run.  When the dogs were selected for our “fun run,” every dog in the camp was pulling at their rope and barking.  When the dogs were harnessed up, every single one was lunging and trying to pull before the cart was released.  These dogs were far from “forced” to do anything, and no amount of training will produce those levels of excitement.

I’ve heard all the arguments about “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.”  Sorry, not buying it.  Those “bad apples” need to be weeded out, no question about it.  One bad apple does not make the whole sport cruel, nor does an anecdote from 20 years ago mean that this one dog died from abuse or cruel treatment.  I would hope that the intelligent members of society would be willing to reserve judgment until the results are released.

For those interested in the article:  http://msn.foxsports.com/other/story/9315662/Gebhardt,-two-time-runner-up,-takes-Iditarod-lead?forum_key=StoryComments&topic_key=9315662

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