Saturday March 4 2017: *Also see February 2018 update at the end of this article.
It’s Howlin’ Time!
The Painful Truth About Long-Distance Sled Dog Racing
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged
by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi
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A Thousand Miles of Hell and Ice
Back in 1983 Yukon artist Jim Robb asked me to write a poem for a poster to raise money to support Yukon musher ‘Cowboy’ Larry Smith who ran a team in the annual Alaskan Iditarod thousand-mile dog sled race. The finished poster was illustrated by Jim Robb and Chris Caldwell and went on sale that year in the Yukon and Alaska. The following year on February 25th 1984 twenty-six mushers left Fairbanks to compete in the inaugural run of the thousand-mile Yukon Quest long-distance sled dog race.
It was at about this time that I became aware of the terrible toll that long-distance dog races take on the animals involved and I soon realised they were neither a reasonable endeavor nor an honourable sport. The shorter races out on the river used to be great fun but then the longer races came into vogue with large purses and government and corporate funding and suddenly it was all about money and fame.
Every year I cringe when I see the dog boxes roll into town on the backs of pickup trucks and all the hoopla starts over the annual Yukon Quest’s sled dog race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. These days it's almost considered 'un-Yukon' not to support the Quest despite the fact that most years at least one dog dies. Sadly, this year yet another dog died; his name was Firefly. The necropsy report showed that he had an enlarged heart and had ingested multiple “booties” (footwear worn by the dogs). The same musher lost another dog named Jewel in 2007 when it strangled and choked to death on its own vomit.
I recently commented on a Yukon News article titled “Dog Dies on Yukon Quest Trail”. Using the handle ‘Life-long Yukoner’ I said the dogs were not ‘athletes’ but unwilling participants who have been known to drop in their traces from heat stroke. I also mentioned I’d seen them cross the finish line with blood down their chest from sucking in sub-zero air for miles on end. A heated debate followed. In the Yukon anything to do with dogs tends to be a hot topic.
During last year’s Yukon Quest a dog named Polar died from acute gastric hemorrhage and another dog died from gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 2014. One sled dog died in the Yukon Quest in 2013 and another two died in 2011. The worst Quest for dog deaths in recent history was in 2007 when three dogs perished. Dogs also die after the race from injuries sustained during the race and deaths go unreported. Sled dogs are run to death and drown from extreme exertion in minus -50 below temps when their lungs fill with fluid from over-exertion and sucking in frigid arctic air for 100's of miles. The dogs continue to pay with their blood.
Long-distance sled dog racing is often referred to as a 'sport' and described in such glowing terms as “A Thousand-Mile Adventure!" when in fact the dogs are being forced to race to the point of exhaustion and death. A popular argument used by mushers is "These dogs love to run!" -Sure, so does my Chihuahua but not for a thousand miles over rugged arctic terrain in sub-zero conditions! It may be all "Rah-rah-rah!" and excitement at the start line with everyone cheering and cameras going off but a few miles up the trail it’s another story when dogs who are considered dispensable objects are forced to run as much two hundred kilometers in one shot.
Long-distance dog races have become massive money-making machines with huge networks of loyal supporters and government and corporate sponsors and passionate fans willing to travel great distances to attend the event. A great romance has been fabricated and woven around these events and they've become major tourist attractions that are well-televised by the media who are only too happy to provide riveting reality-show coverage.
Many of the mushers return year after year and many compete in both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. They are often non-northerners racing non-northern dogs – often smaller mixed-breeds that sometimes look underfed and even emaciated rather than northern breeds with their thick fur coats that are well-suited to arctic conditions. 'Designer dogs'.
Musher leaving a checkpoint during the Yukon Quest. - Is it just me or does this animal look emaciated?
The Life of a Sled Dog
The life of a sled dog isn’t pretty. A four-foot chain on a ply-board shack isn't love. When not racing most sled dogs are tethered on short chains at all times and often left unattended in large dog yards where they are unable to play - forced to sit, stand and lie in a small area where they eat and defecate. Constrained to the end of a chain they often become aggressive and start to fight. There is no escape.
There is nothing sadder than seeing a chained dog sitting with a frozen water dish in sub-zero temperatures.
It is common knowledge that many sled dogs are abused, enslaved, and neglected year-round for the sake of one race and every year they are routinely killed by kennels when they are no longer considered profitable in a practise called ‘culling’ that is simply considered the price of fielding a competitive dog team. - Shot. Throats slit. Drowned.
*The Sled Dog Code of Practice manual contains directions on how to shoot sled dogs when no longer required.
During the Yukon Quest the dogs are forced to run a thousand miles over frozen rivers and through hazards of open water and bad ice in long hours of darkness and to make treacherous climbs over four mountain ranges in temperatures of minus -40 to -55 degrees in winds of up to one hundred mph that can cause a complete loss of visibility. As a result the dogs suffer frostbite, torn muscles and tendons and sprains and have even frozen to death after being dumped at a checkpoint. At times when parts of the trail are without snow-cover the dogs are forced to drag the sled across bare ground and run until they collapse from exhaustion or heatstroke and choke on their own vomit and die.
At least one hundred and forty-seven dogs have died during the 1,000-Mile Iditarod sled dog race. Many died from heart attacks, pneumonia, dehydration, and spine injuries. They have also been impaled on sleds, drowned and accidentally strangled. During the off-season they are warehoused in crowded kennels with no state management or oversight. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition sick dogs are dropped and removed from the race as soon as possible because it’s easier to cover up the deaths of critically ill dogs that are removed from the race. This loophole has prevented the Iditarod from having any reported deaths in some years. The coalition also states “The Iditarod has gagged mushers who will be punished for talking about dogs being beaten and suffering in the race from conditions such as frostbite, bleeding ulcers, lung damage and broken bones.” https://helpsleddogs.org/
The life of a sled dog in the Yukon Quest is no better. A video posted on the Yukon Quest’s Facebook page shows a team about to take off from the Dawson City checkpoint. The dogs look tired and exhausted like they would much rather curl up and go to sleep and yet they are only half-way through the race and are about to head out over rugged terrain into minus -46 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. https://www.facebook.com/YukonQuest/videos/10155045717969490/
Most mushers say they love their dogs and treat them like family - I have to wonder how they treat their family. Would they force them to compete in a thousand-mile race in order to feed their own ego? Overwork them to the point they become so ravenous they will eat their own boots and die in agony? Would they smile and applaud them as they cross the finish line with blood running down their chest from sucking in sub-zero air for miles on end?
The mushers put on quite a show at the start lines and at the checkpoints and many may truly care about their dogs but that doesn't excuse animal abuse and exploitation and it doesn’t make long-distance sled dog racing a humane pursuit. The Yukon Quest may have been happening for years but that doesn't make it ethical. Even one dead dog is one too many. The only plausible excuse for running dogs over long distances in brutal arctic conditions is in an emergency situation in an effort to save a human life.
I believe the world as a whole, including most Yukoners, are unnaware of just how brutally the animals are actually being treated in this event. By allowing abuse and animal cruelty to be seen as somehow acceptable it’s as if we are still in the dark ages. People are blinded by the hype. I can only hope the day will soon come when society finally sees the light and bans this insanity. In the meantime our descendants can only look back and see it as a stain on the history of the north.
Because I strongly believe that the ugly side of long-distance dog racing needs to be exposed for the horror that it is I choose to speak out against it. I’ve seen what it does to the dogs. I’ve been to the dog yards. I’ve smelled the stench and seen the deplorable conditions under which they are forced to live. The truth is that no human could survive the life of a sled dog and neither can most sled dogs.
Man’s best friend – really? These dogs are not objects they are living breathing beings full of spirit and emotion who feel love and joy and pain much like we do. How can it ever be right to risk them freezing and scarring their lungs in a musher’s greedy bid for fame and fortune?
I challenge all companies who sponsor long-distance sled dog racing to question their conscience regarding their support for an event that fosters the unethical treatment of animals. I further challenge people who care about the welfare of animals to question the wisdom of patronizing any company that sponsors long-distance dog racing events.
Of course those with a vested interest in the races will turn a blind eye to the blatant abuse that's going on before their eyes and oppose anything that threatens to expose the shameful truth. Still others are making big money glorifying the race - talking it up, writing about it and filming it so that although the races may enjoy a large audience the world remains ignorant to the horrific reality of what really happens beyond the lens of the camera. The media would sooner eat their socks than acknowledge the extent of abuse involved in these races.
Nothing justifies subjecting defenceless animals to the abuse inherent in long-distance dog racing. The very fact that sled dogs continue to be exploited, disrespected and abused is unconscionable. Even with drastic changes to the rules governing them I do not believe it is possible to make long-distance sled dog racing into a safe, humane and honourable pursuit hence they need to be banned altogether. Legislation needs to be enacted and enforced to protect these animals.
In Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon, sled dogs have almost no legal protection. Alaska exempts sled dogs from any protection laws by classifying them as livestock and Canada’s animal protection legislation has not been substantively revised since 1892 and is actually ranked below some third-world countries.
I may be just one person - one voice - but I choose to stand up and speak out in honour of the many dogs who have suffered and died as a result of this barbarous venture called long-distance sled dog racing. I will continue to voice my support for the ethical treatment and protection of all animals and for the banning of all unethical practises and exploitation against them.
As fellow guardians of the creatures with whom we share this planet I invite all who care about the welfare of animals to add their voice to expose these races for the disgrace they are. In the end we must ask ourselves - what are we teaching our children? Are we teaching them that the heartless abuse of a defenceless animal is ok as long as we refer to it as a 'sport'? Or do we demand change and lead by example by speaking out for the voiceless.
In speaking out I realise all holy hell may well rain down upon me however my conscience will no longer allow me to remain silent. It is abundantly clear that change is desperately needed and until someone speaks out nothing will change. When you consider that wife-beating and slavery were once legal you realise that change is always possible. If just one person stands up and speaks the truth it can never be unheard. If many speak it cannot be ignored. Since the dogs have no voice I will give them mine.
In the news article I mentioned earlier someone complained that people were not using their actual names. While I understand that not everyone is prepared to take on an institution I choose to speak out on behalf of those who cannot and I invite you to join me in refusing to support all long-distance dog races so that one day not one more dog need suffer. Not one more dog need die.
I am 100% against long distance sled dog races because they are inhumane. Just Sign Me: pj johnson. The Yukon Raven Lady. Life-long Yukoner. Poet Laureate of the Yukon. Animal Advocate. The Original Raven Maniac.
RIP Firefly – Wake up Yukon! Let’s make some noise it’s howlin’ time!
"Until the last sled dog crosses the last finish line I will continue to oppose and to expose all long-distance sled dog races."
-pj johnson Poet Laureate of the Yukon ~ Animal Advocate
Update Yukon Quest 2018: The Abuse Continues - The Death Toll Rises
Sadly yet another dog has died in this year's Yukon Quest. ‘Boppy the Sled Dog’ was run to death choking on his own vomit in minus -55 below temps during the race. I also watched as an entire team collapsed exhausted at the finish line but the crowds were cheering too loud to even notice the state of the animals. - Dogs without foot protection from miles of sharp ice, others tearing at their booties trying to get them off and male dogs with tails tucked tightly in and licking at their genitals which is a sign of frostbite. Sadly after all the excitement at the finish line these sled dogs all go back to the kennel to be culled or to spend their days on a four-foot chain 24-7 forced to stand in their own waste and often left unattended with a frozen water dish. The life of a sled dog is mainly hell. There is no honour in it.
The vets continue to insist the dogs are healthy and there’s no problem for them to participate in thousand-mile races in brutal arctic conditions even though the average fatality rate is one animal per race. Most check points are not mandatory and mushers just blow right through them. At mandatory check points the dogs are given a cursory exam at best and sent on their way. Internal injuries can go undetected until the animal is seriously impaired or until it’s too late.
The Yukon Quest is a huge cash cow - big business. Those with a vested interest in the race including the media, mushers, handlers, race organizers, vets, volunteers, kennel owners, fans and government and corporate sponsors are basically in denial and continue to turn a blind eye to the facts as they attempt to justify the races and defend their position.
In fact it is those who continue to promote the myth and the fantasy of ' Man-and-Dogs-Against-the-Arctic-Elements!’ who are the main reason sled dogs continue to pay with their blood. Many people have naive fantasies about the North. This is the Subarctic - either you respect that fact or you put yourself and your animals in danger. Many find out the hard way.
Meanwhile although many people will tell me on the QT that they are glad I continue to speak out to oppose the race and that they are quietly cheering from the sidelines, most Yukoners are unwilling to speak out against this race for fear of reprisal and I am left to wonder – when did speaking out to promote the protection of a defenceless animal become a thing to fear? What does our silence say to our children?
In the end perhaps some of the mushers are becoming a bit more mindful because they know that not only is the world watching but also I and my fellow animal advocates are watching too. At the end of the day it remains clear to me that the only safe way to conduct this race is minus the animals. Sled dogs are living beathing sentient beings - not objects. Any event that involves the warehousing of animals also involves the exploitation and suffering of those animals. Even one dead dog is one too many.
The Alaska Iditarod continues to attempt to justify it’s cruel race by falsely claiming that it’s a ‘tradition’ in reference to the 1925 Great Race of Mercy which was a 674-mile, 150 sled dog relay to Nome Alaska to deliver serum to prevent an epidemic. The key word here is ‘relay’. The run was conducted to save lives and was composed of several teams operating in relay. - Forcing a dog to run a thousand miles in brutal conditions was never a ‘tradition’!
“We are the stewards of the creatures with whom we share this planet. It’s up to us to honour, to respect, and to protect them.”
So for now I’m the lone voice calling out here in the homeland. – There’s something very wrong about a society in which people fear being condemned for speaking out to protect animals – it sends a very bad message to our children. I also believe this wretched race should not be sanctioned to run through 1st Nations traditional lands and territories.
The rising death toll in these two races is a stain on the face of humanity. When I started this campaign a year ago I knew it would be trying and even harrowing at times but I vowed that I would fight to protect the sled dogs until the last sled dog crosses the last finish line. I intend to keep that vow.
There is a large difference between mushing and racing!
*Please take a moment to sign & share this world-wide petition to stop the insanity! https://bit.ly/2uIN6z7
*You can also sign & share this petition: https://bit.ly/2BrtP70