By DENNIS MCCARTHY |PUBLISHED: March 23, 2018
It was Thursday evening in Anchorage, Alaska, and the Musher’s Banquet was in full swing. Everyone wanting a little extra fortitude had already bellied up to the no-host bar, and now they were sitting down to a rib-eye steak and mashed potatoes dinner.
March Madness, Alaskan style, was about to begin.
In a few minutes, 67 mushers – 51 men and 16 women – would have their names pulled out of a Mukluk boot, and told what their position would be for the start of the 46th-annual 1,000-mile dog sled race to Nome on Saturday morning in nearby Willow.
It was a big moment and everyone was in high spirits. No one was paying attention to the loud, incessant pounding at the door.
The elephant was trying to get in the room.
Last year four dogs died during the race, and doping charges were leveled against the winner. A documentary, “Sled Dogs,” painted a damning picture of alleged dog abuse by some mushers that scarred the race almost as bad as “Blackfish” did a few years ago to Sea World.
Under public pressure, Sea World phased out its killer whale shows and stopped breeding orca’s in captivity, but don’t expect the Iditarod to end its race, the mushers say. Their dogs aren’t being held captive, like the orcas. This is their home, where they were born and raised, where they thrive.
To the last man and woman, they will passionately tell you they love their dogs. Why else would they spend almost every waking minute of their day training and caring for them? They’re sure not doing it for the money. The vast majority of the mushers – 47 out of 67 – will make a whopping $1,049 in prize money, about enough to cover their straw bill to make beds for their dogs on the trail.
Cruelty, the musher’s say, would be NOT letting these fine-tuned animals born to run have this chance to show the world what incredible athletes they are.
Animal rights activists disagree, and so does my wife. I’m on the fence, so we flew up to Alaska earlier this month to see for ourselves. Normally, we stay clear of group tours, but to get access to the behind-the-scenes things we wanted to see we needed a local guide with connections to get us some backstage passes.
We found them with John Hall’s Alaska, which has this state wired for visitors. They gave us a telling, behind-the-scenes look at the Musher’s Banquet and preparations for the race, then flew us across the Arctic Circle to the best Northern Lights viewing in the world at a tiny outpost of a town called Bettles, population 10.
But it was in McGrath – the seventh of 22 checkpoints along the trail – that we found what we were looking for. After all the hoopla at the start of the race, all the autographs and mugging for the TV cameras, this is where it all gets real.
Just you and your dogs in the middle of nowhere.
There was no welcoming party in McGrath as the mushers came off the trail to rest their dogs. There was only a handful of locals on their lunch break, a few Iditarod officials logging the musher’s arrival time, and a hundred or so weary dogs lying on scattered straw beds.
Their mushers had already taken off the booties they wear on the trail to protect their paws from abrasive snow and ice, and now they were being fed and hydrated before falling asleep.
At the Iditarod start three days earlier, these dogs had been yapping and howling their heads off, tugging at the lines, raring to go. Now, they were out like a light, snoring.
Watching it all carefully was Stu Nelson, chief veterinarian for the race. If anyone can be considered neutral in this cruelty to animals charge, it’s Nelson and the 45 volunteer veterinarians who perform routine exams and evaluations at each of the checkpoints.
They’ve been watching over these dogs since early February when they did blood tests and ECG recordings on every dog in the race. Then again two weeks before the race there was another veterinary physical. If these dogs had been abused and neglected, it would have shown up in the exams and blood tests.
Nelson knows the Iditarod is under a microscope this year, and his voice will carry a lot of weight in determining any changes Iditarod officials may make in the future, such as possibly shortening the race, adding more mandatory rest stops, and better monitoring of the conditions in kennels.
One of the main complaints is sled dogs spend most of the year chained to their doghouses, virtual prisoners, like the orcas were. It’s a sore point with mushers and race officials who tell a much different story.
“If we have any doubt about a dog’s well-being before or during the race, they’re out,” says Nelson, who added sick or injured dogs are flown home from the trail.
“Our only concern is the health of these dogs. We don’t care who wins or finishes.”
By the end of the race this year, won by Joar Leifseth Ulsom from Norway, one dog had died of pneumonia from the over 1,000 who had started the race.
One in a thousand – still too much.
As a kid, I remember watching the Iditarod on “Wide World of Sports,” and thinking what an incredible journey it must be for the mushers. I didn’t think much about the dogs.
Seeing them close up out on the trail this year, pulling with all their might in often freezing, driving snow conditions – their ears up listening for commands from the same familiar, trusted voice they’ve known since they were puppies – I finally realized what incredible athletes they are, and how this race is their Super Bowl and World Series.
But it was seeing the look in their eyes in McGrath as their mushers rubbed their cold, wet paws and gave each of them a special hug for doing a good job on the trail that pushed me off the fence.
I didn’t see the fear that comes with neglect, cruelty, and abuse. I saw love.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.