Animal rights' organizations have long been critical of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, pointing to dog deaths and injuries as signs that the race is inhumane. And while the bulk of race coverage doesn't concentrate on the treatment of sled dogs, there have been some articles published. USA Today writer Jon Saraceno has written several columns critical of the race and dubbed it the "Ihurtadog" [source: USA Today].
According to Kelly E. Connolly, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)' issues specialist on companion animals, "The HSUS opposes the Iditarod in its current form -- or any other mushing event in which heavy emphasis is placed on competition and entertainment and in which dog deaths and injuries are regular consequences." The HSUS sees no problem with noncompetitive mushing and competitive events where the welfare of dogs is ensured [source: Connolly].
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been vocal in protesting the Iditarod over the course of the group's history. Lisa Wathne, spokeswoman for PETA, says, "It's a long and grueling race that's completely inappropriate and harmful to the dogs who are forced to participate" [source: Wathne]
In 1999, retired schoolteacher Margery Glickman founded the Sled Dog Action Coalition (SDAC), an all-volunteer group working to better the conditions for Iditarod dogs. Glickman points to a long list of injuries (and deaths) that dogs face by being made to race. By her count, at least 133 dogs have died in the Iditarod, and, she says, there's no telling how many die in training or post-race. Glickman also says that kennels are often overcrowded and that some use methods such as culling (killing unwanted dogs) and tethering (keeping dogs on short chains). Simply put, she says, "Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse" [source: Glickman].
The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) opposes all forms of dog racing. They see it as exploiting the animals for entertainment and competition purposes. "We think the inherent cruelties involved in racing (including high probability of injury) make it an unacceptable practice, so there are no sled dog races that we would sanction as acceptable," says Pam Runquist, AVAR director of companion animal issues [source: Runquist].
In addition to direct race protests, animal activists have also leaned on corporations that sponsor the race to pull out. In the early 1990s, national companies including Chrysler, Iams and Timberland dropped their sponsorship of the Iditarod, possibly because of pressure by animal rights groups. The Iditarod Trail Committee instead relied on local sponsors from Alaska to support the race.
And the Iditarod is not the only race to be criticized. While the famous race has drawn the most attention from animal rights groups, other similar races are considered just as unacceptable to animal rights activists. PETA and HSUS oppose the Yukon Quest (a 1,000-mile race in Alaska and Canada) too, and most groups say they oppose any race that puts the dogs at risk.
While it hasn't stopped dogsled racing entirely, the combined pressure of animal rights activism has had some effect. Read on to see how some mushers' groups have responded to criticism and what racers are doing to improve dog safety.