An opinion piece from three-time Iditarod musher, Danny Seavey, March 2018
“Tell me honestly, is the Iditarod inhumane? Can they safely run 1000 miles in 8 days? I want to believe it’s OK, but my friends are asking how I can support the event with all stuff in the news.”
I was asked this question by a repeat customer, a true Iditarod fan, on a tour this afternoon. We were a lot of miles from anywhere, and it was just us and the dogs. I took the time to give her a full answer.
A lot of things have been said about mushing, and the Iditarod in particular, this winter. I have remained uncharacteristically silent, because most of the accusers are more interested in social media followers than the truth and don’t deserve a response. But our fans do.
Against my better judgment, I’m going to air it all out, because as with most things in life, if we insist we’re 100% right, and the other guy is 100% wrong, we’re all doomed. Maybe PETA has a point on a few things. Maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from us. You never know until you listen.
The answer simply is ‘Yes’…also ‘No’. It’s complicated. This is where I clarify that my views are my own, and don’t represent my father Mitch, brother Dallas, or anyone else.
On one hand, Mitch set the Iditarod record last year, 1000 miles in 8 days and 3 hours. He broke the previous record by hours, and his team looked amazing doing so. The head vet said to me at the finish that it was one of the best-looking teams he’s ever seen in Nome. The second, third and fourth place teams looked almost as good, and fifth won the Humanitarian Award. Further, in 50-something years of mushing and racing, none of my many family members has ever had a dog die or even seriously injured in any race, and I can’t remember a dog dying in any top-10 team (excluding the one hit by a drunk driver). So, no, the Iditarod is not dangerous, and the speed is not harming the dogs. In fact, the dogs seem to truly enjoy it.
On the other hand, on average one dog dies each year, and stories of dogs being abused, destroyed, or otherwise mistreated abound this week. While I know first hand that most of the tales are exaggerated and/or taken out of context, when there’s that much smoke there must be some fire, right? If I told you that every dog in every dog yard has always been treated perfectly, we’d both know I was full of it.
Because I’m a forward-looking person, and you’ll never get anywhere arguing over who did what when, I’m not going to delve into accusations. I’m going to look at current conditions and what could be done to improve the areas of biggest discussion: 1) health and safety while racing, 2) dog deaths on the Iditarod, 3) dog kennel conditions, and 4) culling. I’ll add here that my relatives are now getting credit for every accusation about every musher, mostly because they’re the name that gets you in the news. It’s uncanny the stories that have been around for years that suddenly were attributed to Dallas – and now Mitch by extension – once he made national news.
1) Dog Safety on the Iditarod.
A – Doping. I know of mushers who have administered prohibited substances on the race with no positive test or consequences. I know the winners of the last six races are not doing so. I don’t think the drug testing program is accurate or even being tested enough to be believed one way or the other. The irony is that Mitch has been the one calling for more stringent and transparent testing, with annual yelling matches with the drug testing team over why nothing gets released. I don’t think we have systematic or widespread doping, there’s simply not enough money or sophistication among mushers to do so, but on the other hand, we’d be naïve to not think someone is trying. Solution: Better testing, and year-round. I would look to other sports for examples.
B – Dogs being run too hard, or beyond their wishes. Sled dogs like to run. If you’ve ever seen a team hitched, you know they want to pull. You can’t make them pull if they don’t want to. If they get tired, or it isn’t fun anymore, they’ll simply stop and say ‘Nuts to you. If you want to go, you pull!’ Some prominent mushers have been flown off the Yukon or spent a very long time in White Mountain after their dogs did exactly that. And that’s a good thing. The dogs should be in charge. However, there are times that a musher can bribe, cajole, or perhaps even threaten a team to go further than it wants. That’s a situation we could address, and mandatory rest is not the answer.
You’ll hear some people professing that sled dogs need equal time running and resting, and the race should mandate resting time for the dogs. While this is a catchy sentiment, it is flawed for several reasons.
First, running slower does not necessitate more rest. For example, imagine you got up and traveled 10 miles on foot right now. Personally, I could walk 10 miles no problem. If I strolled along, say took 4 hours to cover 10 miles, my legs wouldn’t be sore tomorrow. If I sped up a bit, but still walked, say 3 hours moving, I would feel it tomorrow. I could run it, probably get there in an hour and a half. My couch would be my best friend tomorrow. Back in college, I could have gotten there in an hour. If I tried that now…yeah, no, that’s not going to happen. But you see the result, the less time I spend moving, the more time I need to rest. It’s an inverse relationship.
Second, just like any other sport, the teams are not equal in ability. Mitch’s monsters can run six hours and rest for three and still look like monsters. My first Iditarod team was all young, and we ran for four hours and stopped for eight, and they still thought it was hard. Each team is different and needs to be rested accordingly. Any requirement will have to be objectively subjective.
Here’s my proposal. Create a starting line at every checkpoint. When preparing to depart, the musher can lead his team out of the corral and to the starting line. From that point forward, the team must go of its own volition. No leading, begging or pleading. Simply stand on the runners, say ok, and off you go. A well-rested team will be happy to run. If the team does not leave on its own, the musher must wait four hours before trying again. Upon a second violation, there is an eight-hour wait. If a musher encounters a third, there is a disqualification. There are some wrinkles to iron out, but this assures every team is in the ‘we want to go’ range at every checkpoint. The mere possibility of a four-hour penalty will encourage mushers to err on the side of caution when deciding how long to rest.
2) Dog Deaths
I haven’t attempted to prove this, but I believe the dogs in the greatest danger are those in ‘mixed’ teams. An evenly matched team will stop before they are in danger as described above. I believe this explains why we don’t see deaths in the front of the race. But what about the team where 15 want to go, and the 16th doesn’t? Dog number 16 is in danger. This can happen with smaller kennels who maybe only had 15 dogs, and borrowed one from a neighbor, or filled in with a dog that missed half of the training due to an injury. Education may help here, making sure mushers recognize the danger of mixing dogs. Second, of the eight dogs who have died this decade, three have been in accidents unrelated to running. The race committee has recognized this problem and made improvements already. It also highlights the fact that you can’t protect them all. I heard that someone did a study one time  on an equal number of house pets, of the same ages as those running the Iditarod, and found that some 17 of the house pets died during the race. Shit happens, and the Iditarod is less dangerous than sitting at home.
3) Dog Kennel and Housing Conditions
This is where most of the ‘abuse’ accusations fall, the biggest grey area, and probably where we should be concentrating our efforts.
A – First, we have a definition problem. I was in Florida last fall and passed billboards beside the highway encouraging people to report their neighbors for tethering their dog because that was illegal and abusive. By that standard, all mushers are abusing dogs. Mushers have repeatedly and collectively found that sled dogs would rather be tethered than kenneled, and often try to kill each other if kenneled in groups. What’s more, in any commercial kennel, individual kennels are 4’ X 8’ or 4’ X 12’. That’s 32’-48’ square. A dog on a 6’ chain has 113’ square. It’s hard to see kenneling as an improvement. We tether them because it’s the best and safest method available. We also exercise them regularly, and wouldn’t dream of leaving them in a kennel-size box for hours on end, a perfectly acceptable practice for anyone with a house pet who has to go to work and ‘kennels’ their dog. Similarly, a plastic barrel is the best house we’ve found. They can’t chew it, it doesn’t rot or hold germs, is always waterproof, and the ‘R’ value of every house with an open door is the same.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that the image of a dog chained to a barrel is unpleasant, even if you know that dogs are well cared for. To that end, we’re exploring different systems that involve more lose time and time indoors. I know many mushers are working together to find an improvement, and Mitch has written a blank check for whatever we deem to be the best solution.
B – Vet care. Internet posts are rife with pictures of dogs with visible injuries that look terrible. This is where context matters. With a population of dogs, there are always health issues. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being tended to or receiving care. I could walk into a veterinarian office and take some wicked looking pictures. I do think that the issue of pet health care is valid though. At what point does a canine warrant expensive surgery or care vs. being destroyed? I know that sounds bad, but if you have a 13-year-old dog that needs a $10,000 surgery, many would agree on the answer. What if it’s a 7-year-old dog? Three-year-old? What if you have to chose between the house payment or fixing your dog? These are issues that every pet owner faces. I do think that Iditarod mushers should have a medical bond or insurance plan to cover emergency expenses. Running a ‘GoFundMe’ to fix your dog is not a plan. Given the state of human health care in this country, I don’t expect a great solution anytime soon.
C – Flat out abuse. There are also times that individuals lose their cool and take it out on a dog. Personally, I’ve witnessed this more with guys hunting with black labs than sled dogs, but it happens. We all agree it’s not acceptable, and grounds for immediate dismissal at our kennel. Fortunately, in the era of cell phones and social media, I believe this problem will solve itself. I do not think this is any worse among mushers than any other segment of the population. Some guys are jerks.
D – A caveat to the above. There is ‘I’m mad and going to take it out on you abuse,’ and there’s communicating on a canine level. Pack dogs by nature can be violent, aggressive creatures. Not all, to be sure, but many. If you spend your life with dogs, you sometimes find yourself acting like them. This is how a dog would have responded. Breaking up dog fights is another area where perspective is crucial. Many ‘handlers’ in their first week on the job see a seemingly violent exchange involving two dogs and one musher. Immediately they see abuse and run. Someone who’s spent their life around pack animals may have seen a fairly tame defusing of what could have been bad.
“But wait,” you say, “I’m a dog lover, I’ve owned dogs my whole life, and never dreamed of disciplining one!” To that, I’d say you’re not a dog lover. You love a living teddy bear that thinks it’s a human and forgot it was a pack animal generations ago. To truly be a dog lover is to understand what a canine is in its natural environment and be able to appreciate and respect what they can do. Sometimes that involves inserting yourself in pack dynamics. I do not consider this to be abuse, provided it’s done with an even temper.
PETA is going to be at the Iditarod feigning outrage over eight dog deaths this decade while nearly three million pets a year are destroyed at shelters. Are animals property, or do they have rights like humans? This is a relatively new topic; when the Iditarod founders started running dogs we were still discussing which people had human rights, and one can’t judge the past by today’s standards. I just got off the phone with an individual who felt perfectly justified destroying a litter of unwanted puppies for a multitude of logical reasons. Other people call that murder. I can’t settle that one.
However, I don’t think that people want to be associated with an event that causes culling of animals. We can’t justify killing dogs for prize money. That’s a moral standard we can agree on.
I don’t believe that it’s happening. When we breed Pilot to Lexus, those are some very valuable dogs. Perhaps my family is in an enviable position, with a waiting list of people hoping to buy dogs, and the best bloodlines in the world, but I feel like I can say of all the competitors that ‘performance culling’ i.e. ‘you can’t run fast enough’ is not an issue. It may have been at one time, but tourism changed mushing starting about 20 years ago. Thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people who go for a dog sled ride each year, any dog who can pull for two miles and slow speed is valuable. The outfit in Southeast will lease them for $200 a month in the summer and take awesome care of them in the process. What’s more, we’re parading hundreds of people a day through the kennel and bringing in tons of new help each year. You can’t hide stuff. I sent out 59 w-2s a few days ago. That’s a lot of people that know exactly how things work.
That leaves the problem of unwanted puppies. Oops. What am I going to do with another six half sled dogs half Jack Russel terriers? This is where I have seen problems. Again, this is not unique to mushers, but maybe more noticeable due to the number of dogs involved. You can only give away so many puppies in a cardboard box at Safeway. This is a preventable problem though. I don’t think there’s political objection to birth control or abortion for dogs. We can and should be holding spay and neuter clinics the world across.
‘Will the Iditarod survive all this?’
The follow-up question was another good one. And the answer is absolutely ‘Yes’. The Iditarod isn’t any single musher, or board member or sponsor. It’s all of Alaska. If we lost every musher and every sponsor after this race, there would be an Iditarod next year. And that’s why this matters. In an era of digital media and virtual friends, I believe we need to hold onto every community tradition and event that unites people. Dog mushing isn’t just a sport for crazy mushers. It’s a whole state that gets together and celebrates life in the north country. It’s therapeutic. I can’t tell you how many people I know who couldn’t hack it in the human world. They just didn’t fit. Then they found mushing. Now they spend their days happily cruising along with their best friends. I’ve seen mushing save people and help many more. My family, for four generations now, has led a blessed life thanks in large part to our dogs. We owe a lot to them.
Where do we go from here?
If I was king of the Iditarod, I would make one major change. I would do away with the prize money. Zilch. I’d also do away with the entry fee and shipping expenses, spread the wealth if you will. Currently, the prize money only helps a handful of mushers. Only 30 get paid, and once you get below 20th it doesn’t cover the above expenses anyway. Of the top 20, more than half, by my math, are fully prepared to fund the team without prize money, it wouldn’t affect their budgets. That leaves a single digit of mushers relying on prize money. If you can’t afford to lose, maybe you shouldn’t be out there.
I would then make the race a fundraiser, like most human running races. Support free spay and neuter clinics for all dogs in Alaska. Maybe support service dogs for Wounded Warriors. Bring it back to being about traveling across the state with dogs. Make it fun. Make it something everyone is proud to be a part of. Maybe even PETA will support it. Sure, there are things we can improve, but at its heart, the Iditarod is a good event, run by good people who love their dogs. Just like most of the people who voted for that other politician are good people, even if we find ourselves screaming at them.
Enjoy the Iditarod, and be willing to discuss stuff, who knows what we might solve.