What about the dogs?

The Iditarod has become a focal point of concern for well-meaning animal rights activists who do not want to see the dogs abused in an inhumane practice. This is understandable, in that there are those situations world over where people have misused and abused animals for personal gain. Being an animal lover myself, I could never support any cause which subjected animals to cruelty or neglect. I have been very watchful and wary as I have learned about dog sledding over the years.

First and foremost, understand that the mushers involved in dog sledding and the Iditarod in particular are veterinarians, ranchers and farmers who devote their lives to the care and keep of animals. These dogs are their livelihood. They would not want anything to happen to their animals. If you take the time to sift through the numerous musher sites available online, you quickly get the sense that these people are animal lovers through and through. From the time the dogs are raised as pups, mushers work with them. These dogs are family. Ask a musher about his/her team and s/he will tell you about each distinct personality. Dogs are watched to determine who among them are innately qualified to pull a sled, and who is a natural team leader.

As for the Iditarod itself, there are strict rules about the care and upkeep of the dogs. Any musher even remotely suspected of improperly treating an animal is immediately pulled from the race. Veterinarians are present at the race checkpoints to examine the teams as they pull in and alert the mushers of any concerns. This is an objective way of double-checking on the dogs and keeping the mushers accountable. At any point that a dog has to be removed from the team, it is flown back to Anchorage where it can be cared for and kenneled until the end of the race.

A group of local pilots known as "The Iditarod Air Force" lend their services to the race to pick up dogs from various checkpoints and return them to Anchorage. These pilots also fly in food and hay for the dogs so they will be warm, nourished and rested as they continue on their trek across the Klondike. Between the pilots, the vets, the race officials, the animal rights activists and the media, these dogs are well watched.

Finally, always remember that beginning centuries ago the Inuit bred these dogs expressly for the purpose of dog sledding. These dogs are not bred for show or for domesticity. These animals are instinctively driven to pull with an inexhaustible energy. Read some of the descriptions of observers who have watched a team begin to pull a sled and you will be told of the joy these dogs display as they begin their work. These dogs live and breathe to run, and they are most happy when they are pulling along as a team. They are part of the majesty and beauty of the sport. Together with their master, they stand as a symbol of what man and animal can accomplish together in the face of nature's awesome power. I encourage you to take part in following a truly unique event - now even more accessible with the World Wide Web - the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

-Walter McKenzie

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