This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
This year's Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska is over now and a record six dogs died this time out. Three dogs are lost to hypothermia or heart failure or what they dubiously call unknown causes on the Iditarod trail most years but this year it was six. Six innocent animals who want to please their masters so desperately that they will literally run to death for them.
The race public relations director says that if you take any random set of 1,072 dogs, the number that started the race this year, six would probably die over any random two-week period. Really?
The temperatures plummeted to 45 below at one point this year and two of the dogs that died, Grasshopper and Dizzy, succumbed directly to hypothermia. Their musher admitted that he actually felt ice forming under the skin of one of them but at that point he couldn't do anything about it.
Au contraire, there is something he could have done. He could have been the first musher to stand up and refuse to push the animals he supposedly loves for some 22 hours a day over a thousand miles in sub-zero temperatures. These dogs may be born to run but why not stick to the shorter races and let them do what they love most without exposing them to the deadly conditions of the Iditarod? Defenders of the race recount its origins, an outbreak of Diptheria in Nome whereby people were saved by a team of dogs carrying life-saving serum. Well, why don't we honor Roman history and recreate cruel fights of men barehanded against lions? As a more benign example, I threw a tennis ball 1,087 times across the front lawn for my Labrador one time. He's a Lab, meaning he lives to retrieve. He was in heaven. He darted down the stretch of grass and trotted back to faithfully drop the ball at my feet 1,087 times. Then he lay down, tongue long, breathing deeply, eyes at half mast. He'd had enough. Because his breed is happiest when retrieving, would he have been happier had I thrown the ball and encouraged him to fetch another 1,087 times? He'd had enough.
Back in the 1980's when I worked for ABC Sports and ABC covered the Iditarod every winter, I was their race announcer. Those were the days when Susan Butcher was Queen of the huskies. Our film crew traveled up to the Arctic Circle line one year to do a background story on Susan and her husband Dave training before the big race. Susan had some 200 dogs at that point, all living outside, shackled with 5- to 10-foot chains to small wooden houses. It was absurd to compare the lives of those dogs to my Labrador, lounging cozily in front of the proverbial fireplace. The mushers are convinced that the Alaskan husky breed is genetically engineered to both tolerate extreme cold and to run long miles.
Susan and Dave lived up there throughout the winter without running water. They would get out at dawn and chop ice and then build fires to melt the ice for the dogs' water. Then they'd make the dogs' gruel. This is for 200 dogs, mind you, so that activity took the entire morning. They'd go out mushing for the rest of the day and then go through the chopping, melting process again at dusk. It was an exhausting yet dedicated daily ritual and you were sure by witnessing it that the mushers indeed love their dogs and that this is a life these animals thrill to. But the big race is another matter.
When dogs perish on the Iditarod trail, the race party line is that autopsies will be done to determine cause of death. We don't need autopsies. These animals die from the distress of extreme hours of extreme running in extreme conditions.
There's a bill pending in Alaska which makes “knowingly and intentionally inflicting severe prolonged pain or suffering upon an animal a felony”. That sounds hopeful. That is until you read the fine print where the bill says it “recognizes dog mushing as the sport it is.”
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: Four-time Iditarod Champion and 2006 winner Jeff King mushes his sled dog team over frozen Willow Lake in the Iditarod XXXV (2007). Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images