We’re still murdering sled dogs

Earlier this month, in the middle of the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race through Alaska, a five-year-old husky mix named Dorado was left at a checkpoint. His musher, rookie Paige Drobny, decided he was suffering from muscle pain and dropped him off at Unalakleet, an Inupiat village on the Bering Sea. There was no room inside the shelter, so Dorado and 35 other dogs were chained outside. The temperature reached 15 degrees below zero, with winds gusting to 45 MPH. He was to be picked up the next day, but he did not survive. By daylight, the blowing snow had completely covered several of the dogs, and Dorado was found asphyxiated.

Everything about the situation, except for Dorado’s death, was standard operating procedure. Dogs unable to continue the grueling race are dropped off at checkpoints, left to wait in the open for officials to collect them and return them to the race start in Anchorage. In response to this incident, race officials are consider changing dog drop-off protocols.

“This type of self-examination is an important part of ITC’s historic commitment to improving the welfare of canine athletes who compete in the race each year,” officials said in a statement.

Dorado is the first “canine athlete” to die in the Iditarod since 2009, when six dogs died. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, over 140 dogs have died in the history of the race. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the sled dog industry as a whole, a segment of which considers the deliberate euthanasia of slow and unwanted dogs to be part of business.

Sled dogs are athletic animals. Your companion curled up on the carpet has as much in common with sled dogs as a girl’s pet pony with failed racehorses that are shipped to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered for food. And where sled dogs are common, primarily in Alaska and British Columbia, they have almost no legal protection.

Every year, very many dogs are deliberately killed by kennels or breeders because they have no future in racing. This is called “slaughter”, and that’s the price to pay for fielding a competitive team.

“Thousands of dogs are bred for it, but not all dogs are fast runners,” [PETA’s David] says Byer. “Those who cannot measure up are often killed.”

There are no statistics on the number of dogs shot, as they are not required to be reported. It’s only when a particularly horrific case surfaces that the practice goes public, like in 1991 when Iditarod racer Frank Winkler was found with 14 dead or dying puppies in the back of his van. He couldn’t afford to have a vet euthanize them properly, he said, so he shot some and bludgeoned others with the blunt end of an axe.

Such cases are relatively rare among top runners. Those who compete regularly often have the funds and infrastructure to avoid culls, and the Iditarod has been remarkably proactive in punishing mushers accused of animal cruelty. The worst abuses come from the tourism industry.

A dog sledding tour company in British Columbia’s Whistle ski resort bred a large number of dogs for the influx of visitors to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. When tourism plummeted after the games, they simply had too many animals. Two months after the Olympics, an employee was ordered to slaughter between 56 and 100 healthy dogs. He shot some, slit others’ throats, and buried them together in a pit. He would never have left without the employee suing the company, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.

In response, British Columbia strengthened its animal abuse laws, but only cosmetically. Sled dogs are still allowed to be shot, but only by shooting. Alaska’s laws are even more lax, the will to enforce them almost non-existent. The slaughter continues, justified not just by economics, but by bizarre mercy:

“For me, if the choice is that the dog is going to suffer for the rest of its life by being left alive, I don’t think that’s a very good option,” [the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan] Boucher once said.

The situation where these are the only two options is entirely artificial. Mushers breed dogs only to run, and those that cannot are consumable. There is no safety net for them – shelters and sled dog rescue groups are overloaded well beyond their capacity – so culling is often the only choice. Dorado’s death (left) was an accident, but an accident that could only happen in an industry where dogs are chattels to be disposed of when no longer needed.

Bette C. Alvarado