Update: This story has been updated with a Seavey comment.
As if the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race didn’t have enough of a problem with accusations of doping and sabotage rippling in the national media (see related story), now the dirtiest of the race’s dirty skeletons has been pulled out of the closet and thrust into public view.
A veteran Iditarod musher is publicly accusing a top kennel of killing a lot of dogs as its breeds and weeds its way to building top Iditarod dog teams, and another musher and the husband of a one-time Iditarod veterinarian is suggesting this sort of killing – culling as it politely called – might be more common than most people want to believe.
Most of those associated with Iditarod, most of those who make the run up the 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome with a group of their best canine friends, none of whom have any chance of winning the race have talked quietly for years about fears that culling was on the upswing in the kennels of top teams.
But until today the talks had been largely private. No more.
Ignoring an Iditarod gag rule , veteran Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure went public with a post on her blog that could make doping the least of the Iditarod’s problems.
Upset after being attacked online by fans of Mitch and Dallas Seavey for suggesting there are reasons a musher might dope dogs with pain killers along the Bering Sea coast near the end of the race, Denure, a musher from the small community of Delta Junction in Central Alaska, kicked open the door on the most sensitive of Iditarod topics.
“I believe there have been hundreds on top of hundreds or more dogs – dogs that didn’t make the cut- put down (culled ) routinely from (Seavey) family kennels for several decades…and this practice continues,” she wrote on her blog. “I believe this because I’ve heard stories first hand for over 10 years from people from all walks of life who had tried their hands as a handler in his or his dads kennel. The stories are callous and ruthless – for dogs- and traumatic for any sane thinking person that cares for these canines.”
The Seavey kennel could not be reached for comment, but Dallas Seavey posted this response on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon: “My official kennel policy: #dogsmatter.”
DeNure finished the Iditarod in 11 days, 19 hours this year. She was three and a half days behind winner Mitch Seavey, and almost as far behind his son, Dallas, the runner-up and the musher now accused of doping.
A back-of-the-pack musher, DeNure could have an axe to grind given her lowly finishing position, but DeNure is not the only one pointing a finger at top Iditarod contenders.
“One of my earliest experiences in Alaska (having just taken part in filming an early Yukon Quest) was of shooting footage of a several foot high mound of dead sled dogs, dumped at the end of season in the Fairbanks shelter,” Dave King posted on the Craig Medred Facebook page. “Since then have seen similar piles in an Iditarod winners kennel, have seen dogs chained with cold shuts, others dead in dog houses and over 25 years similar scenes each year. I’ve also tried to balance those observations against examples of the best of human/animal relationships out there including some stellar examples of good racing. For years, my sentiment was that this was a sport that was largely honorable, ethical and that the ‘bad eggs’ where a tiny majority. Sadly, and in recent years, I’ve had to revise that.”
King is a veteran Alaska musher now living in Sweden. He is married to Annette Kriller, a veterinarian who worked on the 1,000 mile Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome as well as the Quest, a 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
Culling was once a fairly common practice in the sled-dog racing world. The 1983 Iditarod winner, Rick Mackey, once complained he wanted to get out of the business because he was simply tired of “dog farming.”
And “dog farming” is what the business once was. Sled dogs were treated much like cattle. They were commodities, not pets. They were raised for a purpose, and it wasn’t to be man’s best friend.
Dog farming faded as selective breeding improved the quality of dogs in most kennels, but selective breeding can only do so much.
In text messages from Sweden, King echoed the opinion of a lot of mushers unwilling to publicly speak out but who suggest the Iditarod has become so fast that it is hard to find dogs that can run the pace needed to have a hope of winning.
Training can only do so much to make a good athlete a better athlete – be the athlete human or canine.
It was long believed that only the genetically blessed could become world caliber marathon runners, and study by a group of Spanish scientists proved that earlier this year.
“In a study, published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, experts of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory analysed marathon runners with the aim of determining the influence of genetics on muscle damage that occurs during the test,” Science Daily reported.
‘This research was based on the fact that there are athletes who complete the marathon with very low levels of muscle deterioration, while others reach the finish line with profound muscle pain – even when there are no differences in training between these runners.
“The results were conclusive: runners with a higher genetic score had lower levels of creatine kinase and myoglobin in their blood, that is, less damage to muscle fibres, compared to marathon runners with a less favourable score.”
But this knowledge isn’t exactly new. The former Communist country of East Germany understood it well. It built itself into an Olympic powerhouse in the 1970s with a program that began by recruiting the potentially best of young athletes from across the country, running them through training programs that culled out all but the very strongest, and then doping the survivors so they could train even harder.
The charge DeNure, King and others now leveling against some of the mushers behind the dog teams at the very front of the Iditarod echo that theme:
The dogs are expendable.