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Sled dog is missing after Iditarod crash; no clear cause of death for dog that died this week

March 12, 2009 |  6:14 pm

Iditarod

Less than a week after the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began, first-time competitor Nancy Yoshida wrecked her sled when one or both of its runners apparently came off.  One of her 16 dogs, a 5-year-old named Nigel, got loose and his whereabouts are still unknown, although search teams remain hopeful he will be found.  The Minnesota Star-Tribune reports:

"We have aircraft up there now," [race spokesman Chas St. George] said. "Everyone has their eyes on the trail."

Recent heavy snows will make the search a bit easier, he said. "We just got hammered," he said. "We have feet and feet and feet of it. Up to three stories high in some places."

And that means Nigel will stay on the packed trail, St. George said.

"We've had great success" finding lost dogs in the past, he said. While the searchers "would never put their lives in jeopardy ... we're going to continue to search until we find this dog."

Nigel hasn't been seen since Tuesday.  Meanwhile, a necropsy on a member of musher Jeff Holt's dogsled team who died this week during competition revealed no obvious cause of death.  The Anchorage Daily News has the details:

Further tests are under way, officials said today. Veterinarians say it is not unusual for a gross necropsy to fail to determine the cause of death. They note dogs die across the country every day due to unexplained heart arrhythmias and other reasons.

The Iditarod screens all the sled dogs for unseen heart irregularities prior to the race, but problems are not always detectable.

A study of 23 dogs that died in the race between 1994 and 2006 found that though 16 of the deaths were eventually explained after extensive study, the reasons for seven of the deaths were never determined.

The grueling nature of the Iditarod has led many to wonder whether it constitutes humane treatment of its canine competitors, who after all aren't given a choice to compete or not.

The San Francisco Gate notes:

Iditarod administrators have typically promoted the race as a commemoration of sled dogs being used to save the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, says 600 miles of this serum run was actually done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog ever running more than 100 miles at a stretch.

Although there is no official count of dog deaths available for the race's early years, at least 137 dogs are known to have died in the Iditarod...

The Humane Society of the United States is one prominent animal organization that's come out against the race.  A statement released last year said the group "opposes the Iditarod in its current form — or any other mushing event in which heavy emphasis is placed on competition and entertainment and in which dog deaths and injuries are regular consequences. The HSUS is not opposed to noncompetitive mushing or competitive mushing events in which the welfare of dogs is not sacrificed for the sake of entertainment."

A few commenters on a recent post about the race seemed to agree with the HSUS, taking issue with the sheer magnitude of the race.  "There's no doubt that the dogs enjoy running and pleasing their masters. But I think these dogs can get the same enjoyment out of regular 20-30 mile races," JMG wrote.  And A chimed in, "Surely they could devise something that involves running the dogs less drastic lengths over safer territory.  We value the dogs' lives more now than when this race began."

What do you think -- is the Iditarod fine as it is, or is it in need of a rehaul?  Should it be done away with entirely?  Are the losses of a few dogs among the hundreds competing each year acceptable odds?  If the dogs "live for racing," should we just leave well enough alone?

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A musher drives his team near the Takotna, Alaska checkpoint.  Credit: Al Grillo / Associated Press

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