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The Iditarod: ‘The Last Great Race’

With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbrook.

Mushers, majestic huskies, and more: we go to the Iditarod.

Lead dogs on the team of Louie Ambrose run during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP)

Lead dogs on the team of Louie Ambrose run during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP)

The Iditarod has been called the “last great race on earth.” Teams of dogs race 1000 miles  across the Alaskan wilderness. Anchorage to Nome.  Through whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

This year, temperatures are warmer but the competition is white- hot. 66 teams started. Four teams have dropped out. To finish, let alone win, will take mushers need nerves of steel and top dogs, who are local celebrities in their own right. Animal activists have concerns.  We’re on the ground for day six of the competition.

This hour, On Point: On the Iditarod’s trail.

Guests

Erin McLarnon, communications director for the Iditarod. Co-owner of the Broken Runner Kennel in Willow, Alaska.

Suzanna Caldwell, reporter for the Alaska Dispatch, covering the Iditarod from the race route. (@ADIditarod)

Dermot Cole, longtime columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and author of “North to the Future: The Alaska Story, 1959-2009.”

Claire Sharp, assistant Professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, specializing in Emergency Medicine and Critical Care.

From the Reading List

Associated Press ”Four-time champion Lance Mackey is the first musher to reach the halfway mark in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mackey last won in 2010. He pulled into the ghost town of Iditarod at 8:36 p.m. Wednesday and was awarded $3,000 in gold.”

CBS News “Officials in Alaska say three people, including a child, have been found dead in the wreckage of a small airplane that crashed along the route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Cessna 182 left Anchorage on Monday for Takotna, a village on the route of the Iditarod.”

The New York Times “It has made for a trying winter for mushers. Several Iditarod qualifying events have been postponed, rerouted or canceled because of a lack of snow. The John Beargrease sled dog race, a trek of some 400 miles in northern Minnesota, postponed its start to March 10 from Jan. 27. In Alaska, the Don Bowers Memorial 200/300, the Sheep Mountain Lodge 150 and the Knik 200 have been canceled.”

Iditarod Gallery

 

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  • SledDogAction

    Iditarod dogs suffer horrendous cruelty every day of their lives. Mushers
    have drowned, shot, bludgeoned and dragged many dogs to death. For example,
    Iditarod musher Dave Olesen drowned a litter of newborn puppies. Another musher
    got rid of unwanted puppies by tying them in a bag and tossing the bag in a
    creek. Mushers even have a saying about not breeding dogs unless they can drown
    them: “Those who cannot drown should not breed.”Terrible
    things happen to dogs during the Iditarod.
    This includes: death, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the
    most!), bleeding ulcers, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases,
    kennel cough, broken bones, torn muscles and extreme stress. At least 142 dogs
    have died in the race, including four dogs who froze to death in the brutal
    cold.
    Veterinary
    care during the Iditarod is poor. In
    the 2012 race, one of Lance Mackey’s male dogs ripped out all of his 16 toenails
    trying to get to a female who was in heat. This type of broken toenail is
    extremely painful. Mackey, a four-time Iditarod winner, said he was too stubborn
    to leave this dog at a checkpoint and veterinarians allowed Mackey to continue
    to race him. Imagine the agony the dog was forced to endure.
    Here’s
    another example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in
    the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given
    lots of rest. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even
    death. To make matters worse, kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that
    normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.
    Iditarod
    dogs endure brutal training.
    Jeanne Olson, who has been a veterinarian in Alaska since 1988, confirmed the
    brutality used by mushers training dogs for the Iditarod. She talked about dogs
    having cracked ribs, broken jaws or skulls from mushers using two-by-fours for
    punishment. In an article published by the University of Alaska, Dr. Olson said,
    “There are mushers out there whose philosophy is…that if that dog acts up I
    will hit that dog to the point where it would rather die than do what it did,
    ’cause the next time it is gonna die.’”
    Jane Stevens, a former Iditarod dog handler,
    describes a dog beating in her letter published by the Whitehorse Star (Feb. 23, 2011). She
    wrote: “I witnessed the extremely violent beating of an Iditarod racing dog by
    one of the racing industry’s most high-profile top 10 mushers. Be assured the
    beating was clearly not within an ‘acceptable range’ of ‘discipline’. Indeed,
    the scene left me appalled, sick and shocked. After viewing an individual sled
    dog repeatedly booted with full force, the male person doing the beating jumping
    back and forth like a pendulum with his full body weight to gain full momentum
    and impact. He then alternated his beating technique with full-ranging, hard and
    fast, closed-fist punches like a piston to the dog as it was held by its harness
    splayed onto the ground. He then staggeringly lifted the dog by the harness with
    two arms above waist height, then slammed the dog into the ground with full

    force, again repeatedly, all of this repeatedly.”During the 2007 race,
    eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs
    with a ski pole and a chain. Jon Saraceno wrote in his column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen]
    confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most
    advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to
    their death.” Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “Nagging a dog
    team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at
    all but is effective.” He also said, “It is a common training device in use
    among dog mushers…” Former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford wrote in
    Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper:
    “Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death
    in harnesses…..” FOR MORE FACTS: Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org

    • northeaster17

      Some how I think Susan Butcher would clarity to what you have written.

      • JobExperience

         Rumor has it that Michael Vick will enter next year if the snow all don’t melt. (May be the last one, indeed.) Sleddogaction has forced northeaster17 to refer to maybe the only possible exception to this hypercapitalist behavior. Don’t shout too loud or the headhuters from WalMart will come a runnin’ (musher=manager).

        • northeaster17

          What are you talking about?

          • JobExperience

             I feel genuinely sorry for you that you can’t see how capitalist sadism has polluted all of employment and sports. It  is as if you never had a job or loved a pet animal. Susan Butcher is dead, and it is unfair of you to  put words in her  mouth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ckearon Coleen Kearon

     

    The Iditarod is considered
    by many folks to be a cruel sport that forces dogs to race for more than 1,000
    miles over hostile Alaskan terrain, usually in under 14 days. There’s something
    called a “Cripple Checkpoint” along the way, where mushers can drop
    off maimed and ailing dogs. Dogs are whipped and beaten into submission, and
    too many dogs die as a result of poor care and the conditions under which they
    are made to perform. Each year, dogs die due to the grueling conditions, and in
    recent years, Ramy Brooks, among others, have been disqualified from the race
    for beating their dogs.

     

    There’s also the
    unconscionable industry that has grown up around the race. Breeders breed up to
    300 dogs to get a few stars, killing or abandoning the “surplus” pups
    who don’t measure up. The ones who do live are tethered on chains as short as
    four feet. Each dog is kept in one spot and cannot interact normally with other
    dogs. Many Iditarod kennels have more than 100 dogs and some have more than 200
    dogs. The conditions I describe are well documented, and the race has lost
    major sponsors over the years as a result.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ckearon Coleen Kearon

     

    The Iditarod is considered
    by many folks to be a cruel sport that forces dogs to race for more than 1,000
    miles over hostile Alaskan terrain, usually in under 14 days. There’s something
    called a “Cripple Checkpoint” along the way, where mushers can drop
    off maimed and ailing dogs. Dogs are whipped and beaten into submission, and
    too many dogs die as a result of poor care and the conditions under which they
    are made to perform. Each year, dogs die due to the grueling conditions, and in
    recent years, Ramy Brooks, among others, have been disqualified from the race
    for beating their dogs.

     

    There’s also the
    unconscionable industry that has grown up around the race. Breeders breed up to
    300 dogs to get a few stars, killing or abandoning the “surplus” pups
    who don’t measure up. The ones who do live are tethered on chains as short as
    four feet. Each dog is kept in one spot and cannot interact normally with other
    dogs. Many Iditarod kennels have more than 100 dogs and some have more than 200
    dogs. The conditions I describe are well documented, and the race has lost
    major sponsors over the years as a result.

  • Mangojam

    The Iditarod is considered by many folks to be a cruel sport that forces dogs to race for more than 1,000 miles over hostile Alaskan terrain, usually in under 14 days. There’s something called a “Cripple Checkpoint” along the way, where mushers can drop off maimed and ailing dogs. Dogs are whipped and beaten into submission, and too many dogs die as a result of poor care and the conditions under which they are made to perform. Each year, dogs die due to the grueling conditions, and in recent years, Ramy Brooks, among others, have been disqualified from the race for beating their dogs.There’s also the unconscionable industry that has grown up around the race. Breeders breed up to 300 dogs to get a few stars, killing or abandoning the “surplus” pups who don’t measure up. The ones who do live are tethered on chains as short as four feet. Each dog is kept in one spot and cannot interact normally with other dogs. Many Iditarod kennels have more than 100 dogs and some have more than 200 dogs. The conditions I describe are well documented, and the race has lost major sponsors over the years as a result

  • donniethebrasco

    The prize money should be reduced because women can win.

    • PaulfromHydeParkMA

      Congratulations! You just won the Doorknob of the Day award! Well done!

      • nj_v2

        It could be satire, but his posting history is any indication, he doesn’t seem capable.

        • PaulfromHydeParkMA

          Thanks? I think? It’s a shame the public forum can’t be filtered to block mean comments, imho….

  • donniethebrasco

    The only good thing about this is that there are less greyhounds being born.  Fewer dog races means fewer greyhounds.

    Thank god.  These are useless, crazy dogs.

  • PaulfromHydeParkMA

    I would love to see this race somehow. The dogs are magnificent, and Alaska is so gorgeous. Not sure about riding a sled 1,500 miles. One trip down the hill used to be enough for me.

  • coyotejazz

    Wow. What’s next? Celebrating bullfighting or the running of the bulls at Pamplona? Maybe you will have a show about Tennessee  ”Walking” Horses and celebrate that grand tradition where humans “sore” the horses legs (oh yes, the practice is banned… right) to achieve the desired gait? How about a show on the maiming of dogs ( “docking”… er, chopping off tails, ears & so on) to celebrate AKC standards? I could help you with a longer list of potential subjects for your show if you like.   

  • http://argonnechronicles.blogspot.com/ Dee

    I had a husky for 12 years. We aren’t mushers and don’t live anywhere near Alaska, but she would have loved it. She loved to run more than anything, and that’s when she was happiest. There are bad seeds in every sport, every field. Animal cruelty is horrendous. But these dogs do want to run. 

    • nj_v2

      Dogs “want” to run 1500 miles?

      • http://argonnechronicles.blogspot.com/ Dee

         My dog definitely did.

  • mariposasprings

    I believe no Ididarod discussion would be complete w/out some mention of Susan Butcher who died in 2006 at the age of 51 from leukemia.  If I recall she would’ve been the first woman to win this race if her dogs hadn’t been attacked by a moose.  The following year, 1986, she won  the race and I think went on to win 4 more Ididarods. 
    She was an advid dog lover a tremendous inspiration.

  • nj_v2

    Seems like animal abuse to me. Pushing dogs to the point of exhaustion in service to human ego. How is this any different from capturing, caging, transporting animals in miserable conditions to perform circus tricks?

    • Laur5000

      I totally agree with you. This “sport”is so unnecessary. It’s simply for human entertainment; it’s not heroic. Just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean it’s right. And it doesn’t justify continuing the practice in perpetuity. 

    • northeaster17

      If you have ever been around a sled race you would see that the dogs love and live for the run. It is in their blood.

      • nj_v2

        Show me a dog that runs for 1500 miles without being yelled at, poked, and prodded, and you might have a point.

      • Laur5000

        I think that’s your interpretation of it. And while some dogs do enjoy running, forcing them to run 1000+ miles over several days is not okay. If you are truly doing something for the benefit of the dogs, then let them run in a park or on a leash. Let them stop when they tire. Let them lead a balanced life. And don’t hit them or prod them. It seems that this “sport” is all about human gratification/ego. 

        • Laur5000

          I encourage you and others to find hobbies that don’t involve the exploitation of animals. There are so many other more worthy things one can do with one’s time. 

      • Laur5000

        Dogs please their masters, even if their masters are harming them. Think of the pitbull dogs who are forced to fight. They do it to receive praise from their owners and to avoid punishment. Don’t mistake their compliance with pleasure. 

    • Phillip Hanberry

      Because the animals actually enjoy the race and are about as happy as any dog can be.

      • nj_v2

        Go run 1000 miles and tell me how happy you are.

  • Laur5000

    I am very disappointed to hear that On Point has dedicated a whole hour to the topic of sled dog racing on March 8th, International Women’s Day. You could have done a far more engaging and relevant story about the status of women around the world and in the U.S. That would have been a conversation worth having. What a missed opportunity! I am not surprised when corporate media ignore International Women’s Day, but I expect more from NPR.

  • Phillip Hanberry

    I love On Point, I do.  Long time listener here.  But I find myself getting more and more annoyed at the hosts rushing callers.  Tom Ashbrook does a decent job, but his substitutes are the worst.  If you are going to have a live show with time for listerners to call in, MAKE time for it.  Rushing every caller gets extremely obnoxious.  If you are so pressed for time, add another half hour or cut out call-ins altogether.

    On another note, How many times are you going to let Carl call in?  :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/alka1963 Alka Chandna

    I was very disappointed that the guest host for this show let slide comments made by Iditarod enthusiasts that the dogs used in the race are well cared for — with the “evidence” offered being that the dogs were given food and water. Indeed, failure to provide food or water would constitute prosecutable cruelty to animals; and it would seem that the bar that defines “animal care” is quite low, indeed, among race supporters. Since 2005, at least 20 dogs have died during this “sport” and research indicates that more than 81 percent of dogs who complete the Iditarod suffer from lung damage. One dog has just gone missing; we can only guess what fate awaits her if she is not found. I love “On Point,” but I do not appreciate the propaganda of people who enjoy using animals for entertainment and hide the abuse that such “entertainment” wreaks.

  • CML25

    I ran the Iditarod.  I did not win, but I have won several long distance
    races.  Alaskan Huskies, the nutrition, the veterinary care, the
    training are all incredibly developed and suited for long distance running.  That
    being said, I got out of it as quickly as I could.  The dogs would
    rather be companion animals laying on the couch.  Most kennel management is abhorrent.  The “sport” is driven by the human ego.  Although there is nothing better in the world
    than to be on the back of a sled in the middle of Alaska, the
    experience is tainted when you hear a competitor say, “I don’t care if
    my dogs are running on three legs, I’m getting to Nome.”  Iditarod promotes all that is wrong with dog mushing unfortunately.  I must disagree with the caller who says that “the dogs would gladly die doing this.”

  • Masru

    A caller asked if Alaska Natives were involved with the sport, and Dermott neglected to mention: 

    An Inupiaq from Kotzebue WON the race last year. 
    AND set the course Record!! John Baker

  • bigfanx

    Just heard this broadcast this evening in central midwest. Missed the call-in segments. 

    I’ve been very concerned about animals used in sporting events and the treatment that is given them.  I have no desire to go to Alaska to observe the teams  But what does interest me is  the breeding and raising of sled dogs to achieve a ‘winning team’. The guest speakers seemed to focus on the dogs’ physical superiority as well as the desire to run for the musher.  My question is: if a team is from 12 to 16 dogs, how many females must be bred, how many puppies must be born, raised, tested, accepted or rejected until the ‘right mix’ is achieved for a team? 

    How do the dogs live during the process from birth to team participation?  What happens to the rejected dogs?

    Do mushers breed their own dogs?  Or do breeders call a musher to race their dogs?  

    Training occurs in the first 12 to 24 months before the dog is accepted on the team.  What is the training like?   How do the dogs live during training? 

    Hope to get a few answers here.  thanks

  • Cabanator

    Wow, I can’t believe that almost the whole discussion is about animal cruelty. Our so-called “morals” seem so misguided. We fatten up animals and pump them full of antibiotics in feedlots, only to kill them later for our consumption, and most people are okay with that. We keep cats and dogs as pets, allowing them to go outside when WE want them to, allowing them to eat when WE want them to, and generally taking away their right to live their own lives, because it amuses us or makes us feel good to have a cuddly friend. And now, many of On Point’s listeners have taken a moment to come down from their pedestals to criticize these Alaskan mushers for their supposed cruelty. I’ll bet those dogs are a lot happier running in the wild, their natural habitat, with these mushers, rather than getting fat on a couch. I think the Iditarod is an historic and captivating event, and I highly doubt that the supposed animal cruelty going on compares with what we put a lot of other animals through for the benefit of humans. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LH6RYRLSSULO4CFFPSULVO37IQ jay

    great Show, please make it a yearly event.  These mushers love their dog and treat them better than many treat blood family members!  These dogs love to run and yip with excitement to be under way whether it is the 1st day or last day of the race!  Watch the video clips on the internet to see how much love these sled dogs receive from their owners(beautiful to see)!

  • Isaricca Johnson-Walker

    To be honest I don’t really like Tom………

    • Isaricca Johnson-Walker

      i dont care what anyone thinks of me…..

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