In a perfect world, all mushers, veterinarians, and handlers involved in Alaska’s sled dog industry would provide the best care and treatment to the canines that make the Iditarod such a popular race. While there certainly are some who treat their dogs as they would friends and family, others only view them as commodities — ones that become disposable when they’re no longer able to pull a sled.
Sadly, the law doesn’t make it difficult for people to mistreat sled dogs. In fact, because they’re considered livestock, animal welfare laws that protect other pets don’t apply to them.
“The dogs have no legal protection here,” said Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure, who with her husband, John Schandelmeier, runs a kennel that many dogs rescued from other mushers call home. “People can go out into the woods and shoot their dog for whatever reason. Sometimes that might be injury, sometimes it’s because they’re too old to race. They’ll make remarks like, ‘This guy isn’t running so well, we’re gonna get rid of him,’ as if he’s a piece of furniture or a machine. And these people are lauded in the public eye.”
Living conditions aren’t much better. In the 2016 documentary “Sled Dogs,” director Fern Levitt found many kennels in Alaska and Canada chain dogs to barrels and tiny concrete blocks masquerading as dog houses when they aren’t training or running a race — the only time they’re allowed to interact with each other. Some spend their entire lives chained up, bored, and shivering in the freezing cold. Others are emaciated and sick when they’re forced to participate in a race.
“There’s no logic to thinking that animals are able to survive and thrive at the end of a chain for their entire lives,” Levitt told The Dodo. “At one kennel we visited, the handler actually wanted us to film a puppy being put on a chain for the first time. He said, ‘You put them on the chain and they’ll cry for days.'”
The Iditarod itself involves such grueling conditions that since it started in 1973, 152 dogs have died while participating. Five dogs died during the 2017 race. But even those who survive live on borrowed time if their owners decide not to adopt them out when they’ve outlived their usefulness. In Alaska and Canada, the culling of sled dogs is legal.
“Performance culling is undoubtedly taking place,” DeNure said. “We’ve had handlers from other kennels interview with us for a job here and have heard a lot of horror stories. People are traumatized by what they see.”
“Change needs to come from legislation,” said former musher Ashley Keith, who also founded Humane Mushing, an organization that advocates for ethical sled dog care. “So many people don’t realize that these things happen and that they’re completely legal. We just need to keep talking about it until it can’t be ignored.”
If you agree that the sled dog industry needs to end its cruel practices, share this story with your friends and family. Be the voice these dogs need.