The animal rights groups desiring major changes in the way the Iditarod and other sled dog races are run have made some strides over the years. In the early 1990s, suggested changes from the groups -- including more frequent veterinarian exams and requiring straw beds for dogs at checkpoints -- were implemented by the Iditarod. As recently as 2007, the Iditarod Trail Committee's board of directors considered proposals such as holding any musher with a dead dog in a checkpoint for 24 hours after the death; the rule change did not pass.
According to the 2008 rules for mushers competing in the Iditarod, "There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog" [source: Iditarod]. The rules go on to outline dog care, the handling of dogs that are dropped from the race or die, banned drugs, veterinary exams and food requirements. Mushers who violate the rules may be penalized by warnings, monetary penalties, time penalties, censure, withdrawals or disqualification, depending on the infraction.
Meanwhile, mushers and those involved with the Iditarod race counter that the sled dogs are well cared for. They say they take better care of the dogs than they do of themselves, and that dogs that are abused won't perform well so it wouldn't make sense to mistreat them. They say that the dogs love to run, and it would be hurtful to prevent them from engaging in their natural inclination. Some view the criticism as coming from outsiders who simply don't understand the legacy of mushing in Alaska.
Iditarod race materials point to measures that are taken to ensure the dogs' well-being:
- Prerace veterinarian exams, including blood work and screening for heart abnormalities
- Rookie training so novices know how to care for dogs
- Microchips implanted in each dog to track them
- Random drug testing during the race
- The efforts of 35 volunteer veterinarians on the trail (who perform more than 10,000 checkpoint exams)
- Dog-care logs kept by mushers and presented to veterinarians at each checkpoint.
The Iditarod materials state, "The result of these efforts is a level of health care and screening that even an overwhelming majority of the human population will never experience" [source: Iditarod].
The organization Mush With PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog's Environment) was set up in 1991 to address concerns about the care of sled dogs and public perceptions of mushing. Guidelines created by the group specify standards for kennels, as well as dog care (housing, food, water, exercise, training, puppy raising, veterinary exams).
There are also some races touted as being more dog-friendly, including the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IPSSSDR), an eight-day race from Wyoming to Utah that stops each night, allowing dogs to rest.
Despite modifications to the rules, opponents of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race want an end to the competition as it's held today, and they plan to keep protesting it until that happens.
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