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Iditarod: Could 'Toughest Race on Earth' be the first great show about the Last Great Race?

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APTOPIX Iditarod.jpg
Spoiler alert: Lance Mackey, shown here with lead dog Larry, wins. (AP Photo)

The Discovery Channel began airing "Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod" last night, and it's been met with a bevy of reviews this morning.

The Iditarod, of course, is known as "The Last Great Race on Earth" and began in 1973 as a tribute to the 1925 cross-country dog sled trip from Anchorage to Nome to deliver a diphtheria vaccine to Nomeites.

While the endurance test that is the Iditarod obviously can't hold a candle to the three miles I knocked out yesterday on the treadmill at the FFC, it's still pretty challenging. As the narrator tells you, these mushers, along with a dozen sled dogs, are "pitted against the worst nature has to offer" during a voyage that can take anywhere from 9 to 14 days.

My parents are former residents of Nome -- the end point of the race. They moved there my sophomore year of college. I spent part of a summer there in 2002 waiting tables, painting the insides of mobile homes and rehabbing a hardwood floor or two. I remember the experience well -- unfortunately. Nome feels like the end of the Earth. Exile. Siberia. A third-world country to a then-21-year-old from the cozy Chicago 'burbs. I wasn't there during the Iditarod, but my parents spoke highly of that time of year and, to be sure, they were bigger fans of the hamlet than I.

Media outlets have offered mixed reviews while jumping at the opportunity to cast puns in the direction of the documentary, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. CST.

The show got three stars from New York Daily News TV critic David Hinkley along with the headline: "Iditarod: Mush ado about sledding." Quite pithy, Hinkley. Quite pithy, indeed.

In its review, Variety chooses to focus on a brief cameo from Sarah Palin, the future mother in law of the most famous former high school hockey player of all time. Hinkley points out that the Alaska gov's name was actually misspelled in the original pilot.

For a real expert opinion though, visit Iditablog.com. They're linking back to their accounts of the race coinciding with the parts that make it on the show.

One thing's for sure: I'll be watching -- if only to catch a glimpse of a town I'd rather forget.

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Acting like the Iditarod's public relations agent, Discovery isn't telling people about the race's long, well-documented history of dog deaths, illnesses and injuries.

What happens to the dogs during the Iditarod includes: death, paralysis, frostbite of the penis and scrotum, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, sprains, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads and anemia.

At least 136 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race's early years. In "WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod," a nonfiction book, Gary Paulsen describes witnessing an Iditarod musher brutally kicking a dog to death during the race. He wrote, "All the time he was kicking the dog. Not with the imprecision of anger, the kicks, not kicks to match his rage but aimed, clinical vicious kicks. Kicks meant to hurt deeply, to cause serious injury. Kicks meant to kill."

Causes of death have also included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. "Sudden death" and "external myopathy," a fatal condition in which a dog's muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also occurred. The 1976 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996, one of Rick Swenson's dogs died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice. The Iditarod Trail Committee banned both mushers from the race but later reinstated them. In many states these incidents would be considered animal cruelty. Swenson is now on the Iditarod Board of Directors.

In the 2001 Iditarod, a sick dog was sent to a prison to be cared for by inmates and received no veterinary care. He was chained up in the cold and died. Another dog died by suffocating on his own vomit.

No one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, tells us that the dogs are beaten into submission:

"They've had the hell beaten out of them." "You don't just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.' They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying." -USA Today, March 3, 2000 in Jon Saraceno's column

Beatings and whippings are common. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "I heard one highly respected [sled dog] driver once state that "‘Alaskans like the kind of dog they can beat on.'" "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers...A whip is a very humane training tool."

During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Brooks admitted to hitting his dogs with a wooden trail marker when they refused to run. The Iditarod Trail Committee suspended Brooks for two years, but only for the actions he admitted. By ignoring eyewitness accounts, the Iditarod encouraged animal abuse. When mushers know that eyewitness accounts will be disregarded, they are more likely to hurt their dogs and lie about it later.

Mushers believe in "culling" or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. "On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses....." wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death."

The Iditarod, with its history of abuse, could not be legally held in many states, because doing so would violate animal cruelty laws.

Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of sled dogs saving the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum delivery was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn't anything like the Iditarod.

The race has led to the proliferation of horrific dog kennels in which the dogs are treated very cruelly. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture determined that the tethering of dogs was inhumane and not in the animals' best interests. The chaining of dogs as a primary means of enclosure is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies. A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse.

Sincerely,
Margery Glickman
Director
Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org


Kevin Replies: It would appear you've put some thought into this topic.

I love the movie "Iron Will."
For that, I make no apologies.

Ah, Ms Glickman you must be having a heart attack. Six weeks of one hour shows on the race you've been trying to discredit for years. So, let's look at some of your points:
1. Winterdance is a book of FICTION...stop telling everyone it is non fiction.
2.53 percent do not cross the finish line...that's because they were dropped and sent home due to any number of reasons....being tired, an injury, or infection or an entire teams scratches. This race has more vets than any and the dogs get more medical attention than most humans anywhere. You try to make it sound like 53 percent die.
3. As for Ramy Brooks...you would never understand what he did and I will not bother to comment on your false interpretation of what happened. You weren't there for the incident, you weren't there for his hearing by ITC...you should be quiet.
4.Joe Saraceno is a writer paid to write negatively.
5. Your information on tethering dogs is inaccurate too. You want 100 dogs running around and creating havoc...I think not.
6. You have never been to the race...even though you have been invited many times. Until you visit a kennel personally and see just how these dogs are treated, you should be quiet. But, oh yeah...you can't. You live to see your name in print fighting something you can't change. Go take care of the racing dogs in your own state of Florida.

Kevin Replies: Ms. Glickman, you have two minutes for rebuttal, starting .... now.

Ms. Glickman Fiction is not true - what part of that do you not understand - It's ashame that you don't worry about all the dogs & rescue dogs & pups that are so cute when they are small but when they are big - people dump them at the shelters to be left to die - You have nothing to say about any of those dogs - AND there are lots & lots of children that are probably kicked to death also - but you only worry about a couple of dogs in the Idiatarod - I suppose your dogs are taken care of to the hilt. Your outfit is about as one sided as they come - You are so full of brown stuff - I can even imagine your eyes are brown with so much crap in your system. Grow up - get your lazy butt to kennels and see for yourself. I'm sure you'll see dogs treated better than most dogs that are tied up and forgotten all day, except to maybe have some kids throw them some food & if they are lucky a little water.
Just keep your narrowmindedness to yourself & stop looking down the tube.

I LOVED the show!!! Can't wait for next week!!!

Kevin,
I figured you needed another positive response after another of Ms. Glickman's rants. My husband and I own one of Michigan's largest and most competitive Iditarod racing teams. Anyone who questions this marvelous sport, or who wants to learn more about these fabulous dogs, is more than welcome to come up to our kennel to see first-hand what the Iditarod is really about. I was in Nome last year for Ed's 29th place finish, and you are right, it definately has an "end of the earth" feeling to it!
Tasha Stielstra, Nature's Kennel Sled Dog Adventures and Iditarod Racing, McMillan, MI www.natureskennel.com

Kevin,
I figured you needed another positive response after another of Ms. Glickman's rants. My husband and I own one of Michigan's largest and most competitive Iditarod racing teams. Anyone who questions this marvelous sport, or who wants to learn more about these fabulous dogs, is more than welcome to come up to our kennel to see first-hand what the Iditarod is really about. I was in Nome last year for Ed's 29th place finish, and you are right, it definately has an "end of the earth" feeling to it!
Tasha Stielstra, Nature's Kennel Sled Dog Adventures and Iditarod Racing, McMillan, MI www.natureskennel.com

Cute article Kevin. As someone in your neck of the woods, (suburbs of Chicago) just a quick shout out to say: "Yeah! Finally, the lower 48 is taking an interest in this fantastic sport, and especially in this race!"
I won't even bother to comment back on Ms Glikmans post. (She won't reply to me anyway.) It's a cut & paste, and she spreads it all over the place, but doesn't bother to correct her information when it's been proven wrong. (The US Government tethers their dogs too! And many more.)
Don't forget everyone, starting this week, the show is moving to Friday evenings, right after Survivorman.

Besides being a fan of the Iditarod, I also run "The Bootie Brigade", which is all volunteers, from all over the country, and we provide booties to mushers (well, for the dogs that is, LOL) running in the Iditarod.
We can always use more volunteers, and donations for supplies!

Happy Trails!
Starlite * - Bootie Brigade Brigadier
http://www.dogsled.net/retireddogs
www.bootiebrigade.co.nr

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