Overexertion. Pneumonia. Suffocation. Frostbite. Each year, roughly a thousand dogs are forced to compete in the Iditarod. In many years, less than half reach the finish line. No person has ever been killed during the brutal endurance race. But for dogs, even those on the winning team, it’s a different and infinitely sadder story.
What Is The Iditarod?
The Iditarod is the most famous — and most infamous — sled dog race in the world. Spanning nearly 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness, The Iditarod starts in Anchorage and, for about half of the dogs, ends in Nome. For the other dogs forced to compete, the race ends in illness, injury or even death.
When Is The Iditarod?
Since 1973, the Iditarod has begun with a ceremonial opening on the first Saturday in March, with the actual race starting the following Sunday. Most competitors complete the route between 8 and 15 days later.
What Are the Rules of The Iditarod?
The rules of the Iditarod are simple. Each human participant, known as a “musher,” starts the race with no more than 14 and no fewer than 12 dogs. The goal is to drive the sled to the finish line with at least five dogs still attached.
Each musher is permitted to lose most of their dogs along the perilous route, the dangers of which often include sub-zero temperatures, gale-force winds, blizzards and whiteout conditions. Iditarod officials and mushers alike are all fully aware that the event is going to be grueling and brutal, especially for those pulling the sleds. And yet, any dog that dies from “the inherent risks of wilderness travel” is deemed an “unpreventable hazard.” Mushers can actually be penalized for protecting dogs from such risks, which is what happened in the 2022 Iditarod when three mushers were punished for sheltering their dogs during a fierce winter storm.
While the rules provide for veterinary examinations of the dogs, and state that mushers may be disqualified for animal abuse, the Iditarod is, by design, grueling and dangerous for the dogs forced to participate.
How Long Is The Iditarod?
The Iditarod alternates between a northern and a southern route but both cover just under 1,000 land miles. The official length of the race, however, is 1,049 miles — a nod to Alaska’s position as the 49th U.S. state.
Where Does The Iditarod Start and End?
The route runs from Anchorage to Nome and is impossible to traverse in a motor vehicle, as no roads lead to Nome. With only three mandatory breaks, it takes sled dogs roughly 10 exhausting days to race the entire route.
How Many Dogs Have Died in The Iditarod?
Race organizers offer no official death toll. The unofficial count is at least 154. Considering that in some years less than half the dogs reach the finish line, it’s plausible that the real number is much higher. A former Iditarod kennel worker alleges that race officials avoid publicizing most dog deaths by removing sick dogs from the race at the first opportunity.
The Iditarod is also held each year without outside oversight or scrutiny. Tourists and other spectators are welcome to watch the beginning and end of the race, but even members of the media are granted no additional access. Per the Iditarod’s own official media guide, there are “very limited spectator opportunities outside of the secure area [at the start of the race].”
How Do Iditarod Dogs Die?
For dogs forced to race in the Iditarod, causes of death include overexertion, spinal injury and forms of pneumonia such as aspiration pneumonia, which can occur when an exhausted dog gags, then inadvertently inhales vomit. Other specific causes of sled dog death are heart attacks, asphyxiation and hypothermia.
After the Race, the Survivors Continue To Suffer
Dogs that survive the race are likely to face serious health issues. Over 80 percent of Iditarod dogs examined in one study were found to suffer lung damage, according to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. A study of 28 dogs published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine showed Iditarod dogs face a significantly higher rate of stomach ulcers, which could lead to further health problems.
Countless Other Dogs Are Killed Before the Race
In sled dog kennels, which are essentially canine factory farms, thousands of sled dogs are bred and born each year. These dogs are typically forced to live on short chains, with sometimes only a barrel or dilapidated box for shelter, or with little to no food. In addition to the neglect these dogs experience, physical abuse is also common.
Only a small number of farmed dogs are selected to race. Dogs that aren’t considered fast enough don’t make the team. And dogs that don’t make the team, along with dogs whose racing days are behind them, are typically culled.
Cruelty at Dog Training Farms
W5, the most-watched documentary program in Canada, aired a chilling report in February 2022 exposing the cruelty suffered by dogs bred for sled racing. The network scoured hours and hours of drone footage taken by activist Francis Metivier. At multiple dog farms across Canada, the footage revealed the same story: dozens upon dozens of dogs kept like veal calves, deprived of any mental or physical stimulation, pacing endlessly in circles at the ends of their short chains. W5 verified the drone footage by comparing it to satellite imagery, which also revealed that at least one of the operations had been farming dogs as early as 2013.
W5 also interviewed filmmaker Fern Levitt, whose feature documentary “Sled Dogs” exposes how one dog farm even contained an alleged gas chamber to kill unwanted dogs and puppies.
Iditarod Champion’s Legacy of Brutality
A two-year undercover investigation completed in 2019 revealed horrific abuse and neglect at a dog farm operated by former Iditarod champion John Baker and fellow musher Katherine Keith. Just like on other farms, dogs were kept on short chains. But on this farm, many of them were left without any semblance of shelter.
Snickers, one of Baker’s sled dogs from the 2011 Iditarod, and now a senior, was discovered chained alone by the frozen sea, with no shelter and no medical care for her arthritis. The investigator also found and offered to adopt a crippled puppy who had received no medical care, but Baker refused, admitting the inhumane treatment would be apparent to anyone who treated the puppy.
The investigation also revealed that Baker “trains” dogs by chaining them behind his Jeep and making them run to keep up. Whenever a dog falls from exhaustion or becomes entangled, Baker keeps driving. “Better to have a dead dog,” he said, “[than a dog who] slows down the team.”
Long History of Institutionalized Cruelty
Sadly, the accounts of cruel treatment are not new. Claims and allegations of animal abuse on dog farms go back decades.
Acclaimed leaders in the field once openly promoted killing dogs for being slow — or even just being playful. “Some of the younger dogs that are just goofing off and don’t look like they will make it, I just go ahead and shoot those dogs right now.” This is one of the many disturbing passages written by so-called “mushing legend” George Attla in his 1974 book Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs.
Whistler Sled Dog Massacre
Animal cruelty in the sled dog industry isn’t isolated to Alaska or the Iditarod. In 2010, sled dog tour operator Robert Fawcett pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of killing over 50 dogs and puppies on a farm in Whistler, British Columbia.
Fawcett noted that he began killing the dogs in front of each other. When the animals saw what was going on, they began to panic. Fawcett ended up wrestling each dog to the ground and standing on them as he tried to carry out what he described as “execution-style” killings. Throughout the massacre, several of his shots weren’t fatal, leaving dogs with head and neck wounds to suffer and bleed until he could shoot them again or slit their throats.
Fawcett dumped the bodies into a mass grave, which was later exhumed by local authorities. In addition to the 56 dogs Fawcett confessed to killing, investigators found half a dozen bags of dead puppies, each bag containing 8–12 pups who’d either had their chests or heads crushed. Despite the overwhelming physical evidence and the killer’s own guilty plea, Fawcett received no jail time.
What Is the Prize for Winning The Iditarod?
Cash prizes are awarded to the winner of the Iditarod, along with those placing in the first 20. Mushers coming in 21–37 are also afforded modest payments. Here are the 37 winners of the 2022 Iditarod. Note that none of them are posing with the dogs that pulled them to the finish line.
Sled Dog Racing to Animal Defender
Like the mushers who were penalized for sheltering their dogs from dangerous weather, some people get involved with sled dog racing because they feel a genuine fondness for dogs. After witnessing the cruelties inherent in breeding and exploiting animals, some dedicate themselves to animal protection.
A love of dogs drew Mike Cranford, known as “River Mike,” to be a sled dog handler. But the work exposed him to horrors he never imagined. “Culling unwanted dogs is an ongoing mushers’ practice, and one racer had numerous pits full of dead dogs, from puppies to oldsters — some skinned for parka ruffs and mittens,” he revealed. “[At one] kennel I worked at, the manager would walk through the dog yard with his pistol shooting dogs for fun. He thought it was great sport.” River Mike met a dog who shared his name and made that dog a promise. “I wanted Mike because they told me how much they’d beat him…He had been totally broken. Mind and spirit, just totally.” When River Mike quit the industry, he kept his promise and took Mike the dog with him. Both have since passed away. River Mike’s dying wish was to end the Iditarod.
Whistler Sled Dog Company
The 86 survivors of the Whistler Sled Dog Massacre were rescued by The Whistler Sled Dog Company, an offshoot of the Sled Dog Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to protect sled dogs. Sue Eckersley, a volunteer board member, had the idea and ambition to establish an industry model of humane treatment for sled dogs. But, only two years into the venture, Eckersley found it impossible to run an ethical dog sledding business. After the tour company was shut down, all of the dogs were adopted out with the help of the British Columbia Humane Society and SPCA.
What You Can Do
Don’t watch or attend the Iditarod or any other dog races or events.
Don’t go on sled dog tours if you’re visiting a region that offers them. Snowmobile tours can take you to the same rugged areas without relying on animals for transportation.
Do support organizations that rescue and rehabilitate abandoned and abused racing dogs.
Shad Clark is a writer and filmmaker. His credits include Through the Eyes of a Pig and Side Effects May Include.