Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Iditarod facts

There's a thread going on that turned into a dialogue about the Iditarod Race, mostly against it, on a new fb friend's page. I'd like to share my comment that I added:

Hi- I'm getting in here late. Nan, you and I just became fb friends last night. Laura suggested it to me, and had nothing but good things to say about you. You invited me to this discussion this morning and I have found my way here.

So many things we all agree on. I live in Alaska and much of my background has had to do with sled dogs. I've never raced the Iditarod, but have worked for people who did, and still have many friends who have or do. I have raced in some sprint races, but mostly we had sled dogs for the pure pleasure of enjoying their company in the winter for outdoor "recreational" mushing, as it is called.

I can tell you, and it doesn't matter to me whether you believe me or not, that when a dog dies on the Iditarod Trail, the grief is heartwrenching. Mushers have spent years training their dogs and have developed a bond with their dogs like no other.

Dog care and health are the most important thing in these peoples' lives. It is such a way of life that it can be said that it IS their life. Any other things that come up in their life are just minor in comparison. When I first came to Alaska as a single woman in 1988, I first worked for a husky kennel with 110 dogs. I became acquainted with Joe Reddington, called "the Father of the Iditarod" for starting the race. He had mushed dogs for so many years, his knowledge of them was incomparable. He lived and breathed dogs, and I learned a lot from him. (just a note here, if I get cut off, I'll just go to the next "comment" to continue.)

When I was working at that kennel (not Joe's) the dogs were more important than people. I found that out when I was taking a big, rambunctious dog from a top tier of a two tier dog box on the truck. This big white dog came shooting out of that box like a rocket. I was always told to never let go of the dog, so I kept ahold of him and we both hit the ground and rolled part way down a hill together. The owners raced over to where we were and asked if the dog was alright. This always stuck with me, see, because they didn't ask if I was alright, they asked if the dog was alright.

I cooked the dogs' food, and believe me, they eat better than most people. It often made me hungry smelling their food cooking. I've taken dogs from their dog houses, or I should say their area around thier dog houses, to be harnessed up at the sled. Some of those bigger dogs were so excited at the thought of getting to run with the sled, it was almost impossible to handle them. But I was always told not to discipline them because it might curb their enthusiasm.

My main job was shoveling their poo and keeping their areas clean. I often thought of myself as being a servant to "man's servant" in that respect, and it was very humbling. Their houses are kept off the ground, so as not to conduct the cold of the ground, and kept filled with straw for insulation. Sled dogs are perfectly suited to their Alaskan environment, and have a heavy undercoat and many more hairs per square inch than other breeds of dogs. They enjoy the cold! They can stand much more cold than heat. They get up to 10,000 calories of high quality food a day when they're racing.

Yes, they are on chains in their "area," but the chains are on swivels and allow the dogs a circle with a radius of at least 10 feet. I've seen ordinary owners chain their lone dogs up for their whole life, and that is what breaks my heart. Not the sled dogs who lead an active life with much attention, affection, and social contact with their nearby team mates.

Like Laura, I won't argue anybody's misconceptions about the Iditarod because I don't have to. I already know the truth. So thank you for reading this far. Remember, we're on the same side when it comes to animal welfare.

Lee Smith