You’ve probably seen movies in which dogs are attached to sleds and used to pull people across the snow (Balto, anyone?). Some people may assume that this happens only in films, while others know about the Iditarod—an annual long-distance dogsled race in Alaska. But what many people are unaware of is that dogsled racing, no matter where it takes place, is cruel.
Dogs used in sled races such as the Iditarod are forced to run about 1,000 miles in nine days or fewer, which means covering at least 100 miles every day. That would be the equivalent of running about four marathons every day for a week. Can you imagine how grueling that would be?
And it’s not only the vast distances that make dogsled races so miserable and dangerous for the animals. The races typically take place through some of the harshest weather on the planet. Temperatures can drop to 60 degrees below zero. “Burrr” is an understatement.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the terrain that the dogs are forced to pull the sleds through is insanely difficult—think massive hills of snow and ice.
Dogs used in sled races have been killed in many preventable ways. They’ve suffocated after getting trapped under piles of snow, been hit by snowmobiles, and succumbed to acute pneumonia and exertional myopathy—in other words, “running to death.”
More than 150 dogs have lost their lives in the Iditarod. Countless more are killed before the race even starts. There’s no requirement for owners to report how many dogs are “culled” (killed) once the humans supposedly responsible for them deem them no longer useful. So the true death toll associated with this deadly race is unknown.
If you’re thinking, “Well, maybe the dogs are treated to happy lives between races,” you’re incorrect. Life off the trails is miserable. They’re typically kept inside cramped kennels with only overturned barrels or janky doghouses for shelter.
Many live at the end of a 6-foot tether, which means that they can’t experience many aspects of life that are important to them, like playing and socializing. Can you imagine someone forcing your family’s beloved companion to endure this awful life?
Abuse has always been the norm in sledding. In 1991, Frank Winkler, a two-time Iditarod racer, was charged with 14 counts of cruelty to animals after a crate of dead and dying puppies was found in his truck. He claimed that he couldn’t afford to take them to the vet, so he’d bludgeoned them with an ax.
In 2004, about 30 dogs were taken from David Straub, who participated in the Iditarod three times. He was charged with 17 counts of cruelty to animals, since the dogs were sickly and extremely thin from starvation.
At Colorado’s Krabloonik kennel, the largest dogsledding tourism operation in the U.S., dogs were routinely shot in the head and buried in a pit when, according to the kennel manager, they didn’t “work out.” The practice stopped only because of public outrage. The kennel’s manager defended the killings, saying, “This is part of the circle of life for the dog-sled dog.”
It’s not just in big races that people force dogs to lug heavy loads in the snow. Any time that a dog is used as a means to pull a sled, it’s wrong, and I wish I’d known that years ago. When I was a kid, I went on a dogsled trail ride on a family vacation in Vermont. Even as a child, I could sense that something wasn’t right. The dogs were exhausted almost from the start, yet they still had to pull me, my two family members, the musher (or dogsled driver), the heavy sled, and the gear through mounds of deep snow.
Halfway through the ride, the musher stopped the sled to show us some maple trees being tapped for syrup. The dogs, apparently stressed and anxious, started growling and nipping at each other. Before long, there was a full-blown dogfight taking place.
I remember my mom trying to cover my eyes and the musher explaining that there was nothing that he could do and that the dogs had to “just fight it out.” After what seemed like forever, the fight died down and the musher used his lead to get the dogs moving again. I’ll never forget the image of blood on the snow and on the dogs’ white fur.
What You Can Do
There are plenty of fun winter activities that don’t cause suffering to dogs (or any other animals!), including snowboarding, skiing, tubing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, and more. Think about the dogs the next time that you hear about a dogsled race, and choose not to support the cruelty.