Earlier this month, more than 900 sled dogs and drivers dashed across the starting line of the Iditarod (eye-DIT-uh-rod), one of the most grueling competitions on Earth. For several days, they raced nearly 1,000 miles in subzero temperatures and blizzard conditions across the Alaskan wilderness, navigating snowy peaks, frozen rivers, and wild tundra.
During the annual race, teams of 12 to 16 dogs haul their human drivers, called mushers, on sleds from Anchorage to Nome–about the distance from New York City to Orlando, Florida. Most teams complete the race in 9 to 17 days.
The Iditarod commemorates sled dogs’ lifesaving role in delivering medicine to Nome to stop a deadly diphtheria outbreak in 1925. Critics, however, say the race has become a symbol of something else entirely–cruelty to dogs. They want the Iditarod stopped in its tracks.
The Iditarod’s extreme distance, terrain, and weather conditions put sled dogs at risk of injury and death, says Colleen O’Brien, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Virginia. More than 130 dogs have died during the Iditarod since it started in 1973.
The canines that survive also suffer, says O’Brien. “For nearly 1,000 miles, the dogs are subjected to biting winds, blinding snowstorms, subzero temperatures, and falls through treacherous ice into frigid water,” she tells JS. “Their feet can become bruised, bloodied, cut, and worn out.” And some dogs run multiple races a year.
Running that far, that fast, is not instinctive for dogs, says Marc Bekoff, an animal expert in Colorado. Wolves–dogs’ wild relatives–don’t cover Iditarod-like distances either, Bekoff explains. “Wolves may travel 50 miles a day, but they rest and they’re mobile when they want to be.”
Even the dogs that made the heroic medicine delivery in 1925 didn’t cover nearly as much ground, says Margery Glickman, the director of the Sled Dog Action Coalition in Florida. A train carried the medicine part of the way, with 20 mushers and 150 dogs splitting the remaining 674 miles. The longest stretch one team ran was 91 miles.
“Dogs in the Iditarod race a 1,000mile course, which is over 10 times the maximum a dog would have run in ,” Glickman says.
Mushers may be taking advantage of dogs’ goodwill toward humans, Bekoff says, especially since there is more than $725,000 in prize money at stake.
“It’s very misleading to say that just because dogs will do it, they like it,” he says. “Dogs would do pretty much anything for a human.”
Sled dogs love to run in the Iditarod, especially huskies, which have been bred to thrive in Arctic conditions, says Alaskan musher Lisbet Norris. This year is her second Iditarod.
“Sled dogs are naturally incredible athletes,” she tells JS. “Through training, conditioning, and top nutrition, they are capable of accomplishing feats of incredible speed and endurance with relatively little effort on their part.” Norris starts her team’s training with 1- or 2-mile treks several months before the race, increasing the distance gradually.
Mushers have a big incentive to take excellent care of their dogs, says Mark Derr, a dog expert in Florida.
“If the dogs are not being treated well or they’re tired, they will quit,” he tells JS. “They’ll just lie down on the trail.”
Race officials also put the dogs’ safety first, supporters say. Iditarod rules forbid cruel treatment of the dogs, including any action or inaction that causes preventable pain and suffering. The canines undergo heart and blood tests before the race, and 52 vets are stationed along the trail to monitor the dogs at checkpoints.
The very purpose of the race is to honor sled dogs, supporters say. Alaskan Dorothy G. Page dreamed up the Iditarod in the 1960s after realizing that many people did not know about sled dogs’ vital role in the state’s history. The canines also helped deliver supplies and building materials during the construction of Alaska’s roads and bridges.
To Norris and other mushers, sled dogs are more than just Iditarod racers.
“My dogs are my best friends,” she says. “I spend many hours with them every day–feeding, cleaning, training, petting, and loving them.”