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Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officially ends with no sled dog deaths

March 22, 2010 | 10:45 am

Lance Mackey drives his dog team down Front Street in Nome, Alaska, on his way to winning his fourth consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. No sled dogs died during this year's race.

The final musher crossed under the burled arch in Nome, Alaska, at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, marking the official end to the 2010 competition. 

Rookie musher Celeste Davis, 37, was awarded the Red Lantern, given to the last team to finish the race.

Davis, from Deer Lodge, Mont., finished in 13 days, 5 hours, 6 minutes and 40 seconds, the fastest Red Lantern time in the race's 38-year history.

With the last musher off the trail, officials noted that there have been no dog deaths related to this year's Iditarod, reports the Anchorage Daily News.

"To stand there and watch that last team come in, I'll tell you, is the highlight of my veterinarian career," chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said. "I think it's a pretty safe assumption that this is a first."

Mushers attributed their teams overall health to the relatively good trail conditions, low temperatures and the lack of a major storm.

"Typically our greatest concern is dogs that might overheat," Nelson said. "So when you have a colder race, you can take that factor, typically, out of the equation."

The veterinarian said that he couldn't remember a year without any animals dying since he became involved in the race in 1986.

There has only been one dog death at least twice -- in 1994 and 1996 -- though the average number of deaths rose from about two a year in the 1990s to roughly three a year in 2000, as the field of mushers grew to about 80 or 90 competitors, Nelson said.

Last year's race was particularly brutal, during which six dogs died, giving animal rights groups ammunition to argue that the 1,000-mile race is cruel and torturous to the dogs competing. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded an investigation of the deaths last year, and Iditarod organizers stepped up plans to have dogs more closely scrutinized during this year's race.

Nelson "put out the word to all of us that the dogs were going to be checked more thoroughly and that after what happened last year, we needed to be more vigilant," said musher Hugh Neff, who finished ninth this year.

And that was indeed the case. About 40 volunteer veterinarians lined the trail, checking dog teams for any potential health problems.

Even with no animal deaths this year, there are still those which remain critical of the historic and traditional Iditarod, including Margery Glickman, founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition.

"If it's true that there have been no dog deaths, I hope that remains the case for however long this race is run and I hope that they make other improvements," Glickman told the Anchorage paper, suggesting that the length of the race be shortened and that teams take more mandatory rests.

But sled dogs are bred for and live for this kind of competition, and seem to achieve the same sense of satisfaction their handlers feel after a successful, if long, day on a blustery wilderness trail.

Winner and four-time consecutive champion Lance Mackey summed up how most mushers, especially at this level of competition, likely feel about their sled dogs.

"I'm not going to win the Iditarod at the expense of my team."

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo: Lance Mackey drives his dog team down Front Street in Nome, Alaska, on his way to winning his fourth consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. No sled dogs died during this year's race. Credit: Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

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