When I was in the fifth grade, my class studied the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. It then became my dream to be a dog musher and run the Iditarod. This story shares what I have learned since that study session in fifth grade, and why I no longer have this dream.
I've been involved in sled dog sports for thirteen years. Throughout the years, I have visited numerous kennels, met a couple hundred mushers, and interacted with well over one thousand sled dogs in their home environments.
I've raced teams for competitive kennels and handled for mushers at major races. I've been a live-in handler for multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest veterans - including a Champion kennel in Alaska. I have trained with and visited the homes of a variety of mushers throughout New England and the Midwest.
I've been involved in every aspect of dog care from puppy birthing and rearing, diet preparation and feeding, yard sanitation (I've got to be one of the world's best poooper scoopers!), injury treatment and supportive care, training and conditioning and much, much more. I've lived with sled dogs day in and day out for thirteen years - be they my own or someone else's.
Throughout the years, I've come to learn that the sport of sled dog racing (some might even call it an industry) is not as caring and humane as the general public is led to believe. Due to my heavy involvement in this "sport," I've been able to witness atrocities that many will never hear of or see - nor would they want to. These include:
- Puppies being beaten with plastic bats to "quiet them" while hooking them into harness.
- Pregnant dogs forced to whelp outside, in the middle of a frigid winter, in uninsulated wooden huts.
- Dogs shocked with electric collars to prevent them from fighting while running in harness.
- Dogs whipped with pine branches to "encourage" them to go faster and maintain distance from an ATV. Some mushers even run the ATV up close enough to "bump" the dogs closest to the ATV when they are going too slow.
- Dogs killed for their "pelt" (their fur coat) in order to make mittens and hats.
- Hundreds of dogs forced to live without a water supply all through the winter except when offered a "soup" mixture once or twice a day.
- Expired dog food and rotting meat fed to dogs.
- Training regimes so stressful that dogs discontinue eating, lose weight rapidly, and become lethargic and/or depressed within days. These dogs are often still hooked up to run during each training session, so they can "work through their physical and mental issues."
- Sick and injured dogs ignored and denied basic supportive care and veterinary attention because they weren't "A-Team Dogs."
Though no sled dog in a larger kennel has a good life, the saddest story of all has to be that of a retired sled dog existing in a larger kennel operation. Some retirees are fortunate enough to be rehomed to a recreational kennel, or to be euthanized. However, some are forced to live out the end of their days on the same four to six foot chain they have spent their entire life on. You can see the dead spirits residing in these dogs. These dogs have long given up their hopes of being taken off their chain for any reason. Some cry mournfully and run in neurotic circles at the end of their chain. Others simply lie in their houses, a dazed and depressed look in their eyes. They lie there, night after chilly night, and wait (and most likely hope) to pass peacefully to the rainbow bridge; to finally reach an end to their physical and mental suffering. An example of one of these suffering, older dogs is "Frank."
On a trip to an Iditarod champion's kennel in Alaska, I found an older dog in extremely sad condition. I called him Frank, because he didn't have a name (I have found that it is not uncommon for dogs who don't make the main team to not have names).Though there were many old, sad dogs - Frank was different. His stomach was tucked up, he was drooling heavily and standing on his tip toes. I immediately notified the musher, who shrugged it off because "he was an old dog." Apparently, because this dog was no longer of use for racing, he was not important to his owner. Frank didn't eat for three days, and I have no idea whether or not he was drinking from his rusty, disgusting water bucket. On the third day, most likely due to my constant urging, his owner put him in the truck and drove off with him, supposedly to the veterinarian. He came back without the dog, and didn't share with me what had become of him. After discovering that the nearest veterinarian was over an hour away, I realized that he was more than likely shot and left in the woods. This dog was obviously sick, yet he was not given any bedding or additional care. He was ignored completely by his owner for three days, and I can only imagine how cold and horrid it must have been to be slowly withering away as he was.
To view a photo of Frank that I took a day before he died, please visit the Photo Album section of my website. His photo is the third in the series.
I have so passionately defended the sport of sled dog racing against naysayers for so many years, but I now realize that the "other side" was right all along. I have decided that I will no longer support the racing industry and all of the death and neglect that goes with it. Not surprisingly, most mushers who I once knew are aggressively opposed to my "switching of sides," especially since I changed my website to reflect my position and began to share the cruelties which I had witnessed with the public. Hate mail and harassment on e-mail lists and online forums are something I've grown to ignore, and sometimes I even find their desperate accusations in an attempt to discredit me to be quite comical.
After all, as Winston Churchill said, "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."