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

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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Comments (5)

DogFather,

I covered a good bit of what was said in the link I posted above. (posted again here - http://sleddoggin.com/blogs/wolfmoonsleddog/2010/03/16/peta-sled-dog-racing-warning-may-contain-sarcasm/). I welcome debate there although please try to keep it civil (not that you haven't done so on this forum).

I disagree with the statement that the fact that mushers "drop" dogs from their team automatically makes a race cruel. It would be one thing if all of these dogs were greviously injured but I think the most common reason to drop a dog is probably mild soreness. You might also want to read - http://tonichelle.blogspot.com/2010/03/dog-drop.html , although the link is very pro-Iditarod so you may disregard it. Keep in mind that a number of mushers do not finish the race either (and, as Lucy Shelton stated, that accounts for a good number of the dogs that did not finish).

And I might also mention that I don't think the Iditarod ever billed itself as the "Toughest Race On Earth" (although I think the Discovery channel may have given that title to its Iditarod program a couple of years back), that's actually the Yukon Quest's claim to fame. Not that this is even relevent to this debate.

But to answer your other questions. Have I ever seen any of the dead dogs? Once, but he wasn't in the Iditarod. He wasn't even in a distance race. Did it bother me? Yes of course it did! I don't know the musher and I have not gotten the cause of death yet but I think it would be extremely unfair to blame that race or the sport for what happened. I have also seen a dog drop dead running up a flight of steps (she was a pet/recreational sled dog and had never run a race in her life). It would be nice to blame the stairs but, unfortunately, I cannot.

These incidents stand out because they are horrible and also because they are highly, highly unusual. It's very easy to lose perspective but remember, I have also seen hundreds and thousands of non-dead sled dogs.

And now I have a question for you. What is your experience with sled dogs?

Sorry if this is long.

Alice

Wolf Moon: You said,"I am a dog-lover myself and would not be involved in the sport if abuse were as rampant as the earlier commenter claimed."

The statements by the earlier commenter (Lucy) look pretty factual to me. Specifically which of those comments do you feel are untrue?

In my book it is abusive if dogs nearly always die and more than half don't finish.

Have you ever seen any of the dead dogs? Doesn't that bother you? Is the race really worth it?

This outrageously-long 1100+ mile event is a race against time. It is where "nice guys finish last" really applies. There's no way a musher can be a top finisher without DRIVING his/her dogs to hurry.

The Iditarod used to be promoted as “The Toughest Race on Earth.” They don’t call it that anymore – apparently realizing that such a description is too much truth for the dog-loving public to handle.

It’s OK for people to willingly participate in any race of their choosing, but in this race they are not the ones doing the work. Actually, the race should be called “The Toughest Race for Dogs on Earth,” since they do all the work dragging the sled, supplies, and the musher. And they are the ones that die - at an average of four in each race.

People who care about their dogs do other fun things with them that don't risk killing them.

This is great news to hear! I think mushers and mushing fans alike have been hoping to see this headline. And it's one that we would hope to see again in future years.

I have worked at an Iditarod kennel for the past two seasons (and I have been involved with the sport for years before that) and recently wrote an essay responding to claims of cruelty. Those interested in further investigating what has been said in negative comments can view it on http://sleddoggin.com/blogs/wolfmoonsleddog/2010/03/16/peta-sled-dog-racing-warning-may-contain-sarcasm/

My experience with mushing supports the view that most mushers DO love their dogs and that the dogs really do enjoy racing. I am a dog-lover myself and would not be involved in the sport if abuse were as rampant as the earlier commenter claimed.

Sincerely,

Alice White

Although no dogs died during the race this year, the average number of dog deaths a year is 3.8,- nearly 4, not “roughly 3” and the total known deaths is 142. The Iditarod’s 37 out of 38 races routinely kills young, healthy dogs and it has to stop.

These dogs are among the best-conditioned dogs in the world due to their training year-round, yet, of the 1136 dogs who started, 586 dogs did not finish (330 belonging to the mushers who finished, and 256 from the 16 mushers who scratched). Only one musher finished with all 16 of his dogs. Seven mushers finished with only half (8) of their dogs, four mushers with only 7, and one musher with only 6 dogs. During the last 8 years less than half of the dogs made it to the finish line.

So many dropped dogs, due to exhaustion, injuries, illnesses, and just not wanting to go, should indicate to sensible people that this race is too hard on the dogs and they’re pushed beyond their limits.

Sure, the dogs love to run, but not for 1100+ miles. The distance is too long and the conditions and terrain too grueling for the dogs. The dogs run over mountain ranges, ice, snow, rivers and creeks in harsh conditions (sub-freezing, breaking through ice, extreme wind chill, etc. Unfortunately for the dogs they are so loyal that they will run to exhaustion.

When they are not racing or training the dogs are kept tethered to their own small dog house, which is inhumane.

I cannot believe that the mushers truly love their dogs, because racing them subjects the dogs to the possibility of exhaustion, injuries, illnesses, and death.


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