The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is long over and already near forgotten, and “Sled Dogs,” the controversial movie critical of the commercial use of sled dogs for racing and tours, has found a national distributor. Showings are scheduled for California later this month.
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is hosting an April 23 screening at its “Empathy Center” on famous Sunset Boulevard in LA before the film heads for a second showing at the Newport Beach International Film Festival on April 25.
Efforts to stop distribution of the film having apparently failed, it opens across Canada starting May 9 with stops in major U.S.cities to follow in June, according to the producers.
A scheduled national tour can’t help but make one wonder if the Iditarod might be on the verge of a crisis unlike any since the early 1990s when the Humane Society of the United States launched a major assault on the race.
The late Susan Butcher, already a four-time champ at the time, embraced HSUS’s effort to “reform” Iditarod.
“She welcomes the new interest in mushing’s darker corners,” the Washington Post reported in November 1991. “She told mushers at a recent symposium in Fairbanks that the few who mistreat dogs make everybody look bad.”
Butcher and husband David Monson took HSUS president David Wills under their wing. Wills told journalist Yereth Rosen, now a reporter at the Alaska Dispatch News, that he was “trying to work cooperatively with mushers to make the race safer.”
In a story for the Christian Science Monitor, Rosen quoted Wells saying, “our goal is zero dog deaths.”
It would be 17 years before Iditarod achieved that goal in 2010, and then only fleetingly. By then, the Butcher-Monson flirtation with HSUS would be long over, having ended badly in 1994 when one of Butcher’s dog died on the trail.
Iditarod and HSUS promptly parted ways. Major sponsors abandoned the race. Butcher retired from racing saying she wanted to start a family. The Humane Society unsuccessfully appealed to the Alaska attorney general to investigate the race, saying the dogs were being asked to run too far too fast.
Martin Buser from Big Lake had just won his second Iditarod in a then-record time of 10 days, 13 hours and a few minutes. The record was destined to go a lot lower.
Mitch Seavey from Sterling this year won the race in a record time of 8 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes, proving that Iditarod dogs could cover 1,000 miles of trail considerably faster than anyone imagined in 1994. At the same time, the speed has raised new questions as to how fast is too fast.
Though you might not have read much critical of Iditarod in what passes for Alaska’s mainstream media, word has been leaking out that there are those associated with the race who think there are issues needing attention.
Lauren Cuddihy, a reporter for the Northern Light, the student newspaper at the University of Alaska Anchorage, on March 28 reported that “a spokesperson for the Iditarod Trail Committee, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the majority of the deaths throughout the races could have been prevented with proper treatment and preparation.”
The statement ran directly contrary to a long-held Iditarod position that most of the dog deaths were unpreventable.
Emailed as to whether the report might have left out the word “not,” as in “could not have been prevented,” Cuddihy answered “that was not a typo. Other instances of Iditarod Committee members and prior members actually have come out and admitted similar opinions as this.
“Deaths caused by snow machine accidents, for instance, obviously could have no way of being prevented. But other instances of hypothermia have definitive ways to be prevented due to discretion of the owner. This is common sense. The committee member who remained anonymous knows that the general public is aware of that fact as well.”
In 2009, two dogs in the team of musher Lou Packer did die of hypothermia after he was caught in a life-threatening storm along the trail from the ghost town of Iditarod to the tiny village of Shageluk in the Interior. A third dog might have died in the same storm but for the heroic efforts of Fairbanks-area musher Blake Matray and Kim Darst, an Iditarod rookie from New Jersey who huddled with the dog in a sleeping bag in a tent during a ragingstorm to revive it.
Whether the deaths of Packer’s dog were preventable is debatable. He was struggling to stay alive himself. The Iditarod has tried to prevent these sorts of deaths by upping the entry standards for mushers to the point where they are almost ridiculous.
The belief is that if you make the entry requirements difficult enough the race will be limited to only those people fully at home in the Alaska wilderness in the dead of winter. The reality is that things don’t work that way.
The only people really at home in the Alaska wilderness in the dead of winter are the people with a lot of experience at surviving in the Alaska wilderness in the dead of winter. There are veteran Iditarod mushers who wouldn’t clear that bar.
It is thus to be expected that when people get into the kind of storm that makes it difficult for them to take care of themselves, some of them are going to have trouble taking care of their dogs. Given the thin, natural coats on some Iditarod dogs these days, that’s a problem.
Real world experience
Take it from Matray, who played a key role in saving Darst’s dog in 2009. Here’s how he recounted his actions in that storm:
“‘I started stomping out snow caves for my dogs to get out of the wind,’ Matray said, sprinkling the bottoms with straw he’d hauled from Iditarod. I put that down in the snow caves, and the dogs kind of settled in there in pairs.’
“‘Matray had a short-haired pointer mix rescued from a Fairbanks shelter that he was concerned about. He made sure to put a coat on the dog and give it extra straw when he settled it into a snow cave. He was happy to find the pointer curled up and looking cozy.”
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a pilot trained in survival, a man conditioned to think calmly in difficult situations, a man who’d spent a fair amount of time adventuring in Alaska’s frozen Interior, Matray was a guy psychologically equipped to deal with caring for himself and his dogs in a bad storm.
Not all mushers can say the same. The Iditarod is mainly just lucky more dogs haven’t died due to hypothermia in recent years. Veteran musher Hugh Neff’s team quit on him along the Bering Sea in 2014, and he spent the night out on Golovin Bay in a storm which Neff later said nearly killed him.
Neff was curled up half inside his sled bag at the time, half into a sleeping bag, and the dogs were exposed on the ice. Neff claimed they were all buffeted by “hurricane-force winds” while enduring extreme cold.
Thankfully he was exaggerating. A nearby weather station showed the winds at about 35 mph – less than half that of a hurricane – and the temperatures ranged from 10 degrees down to minus-5. That would be enough to push the windchill, which has an effect on dogs as well as on people, down to a dangerous 34 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service’s windchill calculator.
But extreme cold, say maybe 30 degrees below zero, and hurricane force winds would have driven the windchill past dangerous into potentially deadly. At 30 degrees below zero in a hurricane force wind it would have been minus-80 – more than twice as cold.
Global warming hope
The Iditarod has had some tough coastal weather in recent years, but lucky for the dogs, nothing like Neff described. That has not always been the case. When four-time champ Rick Swenson walked his dogs through a 1991 storm to become the race’s only five-time winner, the winds were reported to be blowing 50 mph with the temperature at 25-degrees below zero.
The weather service’s windchill calculator spits out a somewhat appropriate minus-66.6 for the windchill in those conditions. The conditions were almost twice as bad as the worst Neff encountered. Most other mushers who left White Mountain that day had the sense to turn back to the safety of the checkpoint.
Swenson, a man both stubborn and skilled, kept going. Behind him, so did Martin Buser from Big Lake. Both got their teams through without incident.
People can argue long and hard over whether deaths in this kind of weather are preventable. Swenson, who put coats on his dogs and placed those with the thickest natural coats on the windward side of his team during that march, would likely argue that they are, but others might differ.
And not all mushers are as capable as Swenson and Butcher or as lucky as Neff.
Luck might have played a part in the four times in the past decade that the Iditarod has run races without a single dog dying. Despite those years, however, the average death rate for the decade still stands at about 1.7 dogs per year.
Iditarod veterinarians long argued that were more than 1,000 dogs – the number in the teams at the start of an average Iditarod – penned up and well cared for over the course of three weeks one or two would be expected to die.
Any new suggestion that most dog deaths could have been prevented would mark a major shift in Iditarod thinking.
Still, Cuddihy emailed, “I wasn’t too surprised (by the comments). I’m only an amateur college-level reporter, (and) the Northern Light also doesn’t have too much publicity around the city. They also remained anonymous in the story; not too risky on their part.”
All of that is true, but the issue of what dog deaths in the Iditarod could have been prevented becomes very complicated. Two of the five reported this year are obviously preventable, though not easily so.
One was a dog that got loose and was killed in traffic. Dogs get loose all the time. It would be nice to think they could be always kept under control, but the fact is they can’t. When a young boy’s dog got loose and was killed in traffic in Anchorage last year it caused a major uproar most of the media tried to pin on the driver involved.
It wasn’t the drivers fault. The dog ran out in traffic because dogs, sadly, aren’t always traffic savvy. An estimated 1 to 6 million of them die in traffic every year.
Another Iditarod dog died this year of heat stroke – hyperthermia, the opposite of hypothermia – while in an airplane packed with dogs being flow from Galena to Anchorage. Exactly what happened to lead to that death has never been fully explained, but the death should have been preventable.
Still, with the Iditarod handling as many dogs as it does during the race – 1,152 started the race this year and had to be shipped back from the trail at some point – and with much of the dog handling being done by volunteers, accidents are almost certain to happen at some time.
Of the 17 dogs dead in the Iditarod in the past 10 years, four dogs appear to have died in dog-handling accidents: the two mentioned above, plus a dog that suffocated in Unalkaleet and another that died in a turbulent plane ride while being flown of the trail in a small plane in 2009.
The 2013 death in Unalkleet involved a dog buried beneath hard-packed, drifting snow outside of the checkpoint. That death was later attributed to a poorly designed dog drop. In response, Iditarod put shelters for dropped dogs in the Bering Sea village. That move eliminated the risk of another similar death.
Two more dogs died when hit by snowmachines buzzing along the trail in the past decade. Those deaths are theoretically preventable, but not easily so. The Iditarod is in many places a narrow trail, and there are as many drunk drivers out there on snowmachines as there are drunk drivers on the roads of Alaska. These deaths could likely be prevented by eliminating drunk driving, but everyone knows how difficult that has proven.
And whatever the issue of preventability here, the reality is that six of the 17 dog deaths in the past decade came in the sorts of accidents that one might consider sadly normal, which leaves 11 dogs deaths to be explained. On average, that’s just a little over one death per race.
The average would seem to reflect the old Iditarod belief of veterinarians that the race can’t be run without a death or two a year. They long claimed this as a statistical probability given the large number of dogs involved, the difficult environment in which they travel, and the short canine lifespan.
A group of 1,152 Americans (that’s a group equal to the number of dogs starting the Iditarod this year) would have a combined, expected lifespan of 158,425 years. The same number of Alaska huskies would have a combined lifespan of 17,260 years at most.
The numbers would indicate that at any given time it would be about nine times more likely for a death in the latter group.
It’s possible that the old position that a death per year on average over the long-term is to be expected and everyone has to accept that. The problem is that in the past 10 years, the Iditarod ran those four races – 2010 through 2012 and 2014 – in which there were no dog deaths.
The Iditarod set itself a high bar with the death-free years. It becomes an extremely high bar if one is of the belief is that “the majority of the deaths throughout the races could have been prevented with proper treatment and preparation.”
Of these 11 dog deaths above, five involved dogs that died of unknown causes. How one prevents deaths from unknown causes is hard to tell.
Other deaths, however, have been linked to identifiable causes.
Of the three dogs that died during the race this year, one died of “aspiration pneumonia” (it was the second to die from that cause in this decade); one died of pulmonary edema; and one died of unknown causes but with recognized internal abnormalities.
A study of 23 Iditarod dog deaths from 1994 to 2006 reported one of the abnormalities “detected frequently” was “centrilobular hepatic fibrosis” or, in layman’s terms, cysts on the liver. Among humans, this is an abnormality most often seen in alcoholics.
No Alaska sled dogs are known to have a drinking problem, but there is another well-known cause for these sorts of liver problems. In human athletes, the use of anabolic steroids to increase performance has been linked to “hemorrhagic cystic degeneration of the liver, which may lead to fibrosis,” according to the Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science.
The sport of sled dog racing was once rife with the rumors of the use of performance-enhancing drugs, though none of that was ever reported in the media. The Iditarod Trail Committee was concerned enough about the potential for doping, however, that it introduced drug testing for the dogs in 1994.
Since then, it has never publicly reported finding a doped dog.
The race’s drug-testing program would, however, be easy to beat given that there is no out-of-competition testing. Stanozolol was the drug regularly mentioned in the 1990s, according to mushers active then. It’s now sold under the trade name Winstrol.
The drug is used to build lean muscle-mass in humans. It is said to do the same in dogs. The website Anabolic.Co offers advice on how to beat drug tests. On average, it says, Winstrol is undetectable after nine weeks.
There is no evidence anyone has used drugs to improve the Iditarod performance of dogs, but it would appear pretty easy to beat the system by using drugs to build stronger dogs in training and then take them off the drugs in time to pass the Iditarod drug tests.
Recognizing this, the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports requires out-of-competition testing as part of its doping protocols, but the Iditarod is not a member of the IFSS.
To assume Iditarod mushers are unaware of the potential benefits of performance-enhancing drugs would be naive. The sport has been tuned into the latest techniques for improving aerobic performance for a long, long time. A decade ago, four-time champ Jeff King was using the canine version of an altitude tent to boost the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood of his dogs.
“A training technique that may have worked for Lance Armstrong is now being tried out on the star dogs of the Iditarod,” ABC News reported in a March 2007 story about King. “Several high-profile athletes like Lance Armstrong have reportedly used such enclosed chambers to increase red blood cells in their bodies and improve endurance.”
As it turned out, Armstrong was using a lot more than a high-altitude tent. King, for the record, has never been in any way linked to doping. He has brought plenty of other innovations to the sport, innovations that likely helped him win four times, but there has never even been a hint of a rumor of his being involved in doping.
The same cannot be said of former champ Doug Swingley from Montana. When he owned the Iditarod from 1999-2001, there was plenty of behind the scenes mumbling about how his team had to be doping. There was never any evidence of that, however, and the rumors are pretty easily dismissed in light of the disfavor in which Alaskans held an Outsider for winning the race.
Still, in the long history of the Iditarod, it seems unlikely everyone has been able to avoid the temptation to dope, and there were in the race’s earlier days some deaths linked to liver lesions that sparked a lot of speculation.
The specifics of “abnormalities” found in necropsied Iditarod dogs now go unreported.
The non-abnormality leading to death that does get reported is aspiration-pneumonia. Along with the one dog whose death was this year tied to the illness, there was a report of another that nearly died. There might have been more. The Iditarod does not report all the dogs saved by the sometimes heroic efforts of veterinarians.
“Aspiration pneumonia (AP) is a reasonably common ailment in sled dogs, caused by vomiting, vomiting secondary to a gastric ulcer, or from ‘biting snow’,” Australian veterinarian Campbell Costello, a 2016 Iditarod volunteer vet, wrote in the June 2016 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal. He described treating once such dog that went down and “was airlifted two-hours later to McGrath for further treatment and he made a full recovery.”
A study published last year at this time in Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, a respected Scandinavian veterinary journal, noted “the two most common causes of death (in sled dogs) were found to be aspiration of gastric contents with subsequent aspiration pneumonia and acute blood loss due to gastric ulceration.
Iditarod veterinarians have largely licked the problem of gastric ulcerations by allowing and then encouraging mushers to give their dogs Pepcid on a regular schedule to settle stomachs, but clearly the problem of coughing or vomiting up food and then inhaling it – the cause of aspiration pneumonia – remains.
Studies of humans have concluded that the “disorder is provoked more often by high-intensity exercise, whereas low-intensity training can even accelerate gastric emptying,” ie. the classic “runner’s shit.”
“Apart from exercise intensity, another frequent cause of such disorders in athletes is dehydration,” Pawel Samborski wrote in a 2013 paper published in the Polish Gastroenterology Review.
As the speed of the Iditarod increases, veterinarians noted, it is harder to keep the dogs properly hydrated (they can’t drink on the run like humans), and at the same time, the dogs require more food to maintain the energy to run a high pace. Unless they get the time to digest that food, it can become a problem.
“‘When you run at a high intensity, you increase the pressure in the intra-abdominal space, which puts pressure on your stomach,’ Carwyn Sharp, Colorado-based exercise physiologist advised readers of Runner’s World. “When this happens, it can force contents in your stomach back up into your esophagus—possibly all the way back up to where it started. This scenario is more likely if you had a large quantity of food or liquid in your stomach before a run.”
Deaths from aspiration pneumonia are arguably preventable. If the Iditarod dogs weren’t running, these deaths wouldn’t happen. Most dogs don’t inhale the food they cough up.
But how to prevent this problem begs the question of how the Iditarod can be run without these sorts of deaths happening, especially as the speed (and thus the intensity) of the race continues to increase. Few involved with Iditarod like the idea of adding yet more mandatory rest stops, but at some point it would seem they might be required just to give the dogs adequate time to digest their food.
And lastly there is that question of pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema is often linked to a damaged or over-worked heart. Some veterinarians familiar with Iditarod are beginning to wonder about the possibility of heart damage tied to the staggering amounts of mileage some dog teams are now running in preparation to race the Iditarod.
The 2,000 miles Iditarod veteran DeeDee Jonrowe reported logging on her team in training for the Iditarod last year used to be considered something of the norm, but there are now teams reported to be logging 5,000 miles or more, sometimes significantly more, in preparation for the Iditarod or Alaska’s other big, sled-dog race the Yukon Quest International from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
A long list of studies of humans and animals have shown exercise generally improves health, but there is a growing body of evidence indicating that it is possible to overdo exercise, that it is possible to exercise to the point where the effort hurts rather than helps the heart.
“Emerging data suggest that chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races, can cause transient acute volume overload of the atria and right ventricle, with transient reductions in right ventricular ejection fraction and elevations of cardiac biomarkers…, ” Dr. James O’Keefe and associates reported in a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings five years ago. “Over months to years of repetitive injury, this process, in some individuals, may lead to patchy myocardial fibrosis, particularly in the atria, interventricular septum, and right ventricle, creating a substrate for atrial and ventricular arrhythmias. Additionally, long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening. However, this concept is still hypothetical and there is some inconsistency in the reported findings.”
Since then, there has been a building consensus that one can get too much of a good thing.
“‘Overdosing’ on Exercise May Be Toxic to the Heart,” LiveScience.com headlined in March.
The story cited “a provocative review of studies set to appear in an upcoming issue of the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.
“Pushing your body to the max day after day can stress your heart and raise your risk for a type of abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, which ultimately can lead to heart failure or a stroke, according to the review, which analyzed 12 studies on A-fib in athletes and endurance runners.”
There is no reason to believe the situation would be any different for canines, which have a cardio-vascular system similar to humans.
All of which raises difficult issues for Alaska’s Last Great Race as the Sled Dogs documentary tries to push the issue of sled-dog treatment into the public discussion.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on April 13, 2017 to correct Mitch Seavey’s winning time.