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Dogs are dying, and it’s not Michael Vick’s fault

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Tim Dahlberg
March 19, 2009

Two dogs died in the name of sport this week, and this time it wasn’t Michael Vick’s fault.


Dizzy and Grasshopper were their names, and they met their demise in the Alaska wilderness as the wind howled, temperatures dropped to 45 degrees below, and their owner began worrying about his own survival.


They were sled dogs, part of a pack of 15 ferrying musher Lou Packer through his first Iditarod, an 1,100-mile trek made even more grueling by high winds and deep snow. One other dog also perished in this year’s race.


Listen to race supporters and they’ll tell you that, unlike Vick’s dogs, the 5-year-old huskies died doing what they loved. Read the official Iditarod Web site and you’ll find out that sled dogs are pampered and loved by their masters.


They call it “The Last Great Race on Earth” and on Wednesday it was great for Lance Mackey, who had easy sledding as he drove into Nome to win his third straight Iditarod and the $69,000 plus new pickup that goes with it. Mackey celebrated by hugging two of his dogs and giving them treats.


Packer didn’t win anything, didn’t even finish. By the time searchers found him, the Alaskan doctor was on foot leading his dogs instead of the other way around as he struggled to find the trail.


Dizzy and Grasshopper were already dead.


“I think those two guys probably froze to death in the high winds,” Packer told the Anchorage Daily News. “I didn’t think it possible.”


The story Packer told the newspaper of his ordeal is just another that will live in folklore. These are hardy people who brave the sometimes brutal outdoors because they’ve chosen it as their way of life.


They don’t have a problem with chaining up big packs of dogs and running them to within an inch of their life for sport. They accept the fact that the Iditarod is a part of the state’s heritage, and its biggest sporting event.


A lot of us in the Lower 48, though, just don’t get it.


As a dog owner, my first reaction on hearing that two more dogs died in this year’s race was one of sadness. My second was wondering why PETA wasn’t up there making a fuss about it all.


The animal rights organization, after all, seems to launch a protest every time Vick’s name is mentioned, and last month went to the absurd length of dressing up in KKK outfits at the Westminster Dog Show to protest what it said were attempts to create a “master race” of dogs.


Maybe they have an excuse. The event was outside of New York City, and they may not have had proper fake fur coats.


Barbara Hodges wasn’t in Alaska, either. But the California veterinarian was doing something she thought was more valuable, drafting a letter on behalf of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association to Iditarod sponsors like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Wells Fargo, asking them to withdraw their support from the race.


Hodges treats dogs and cats for a living, so she’s seen a lot of animal suffering up close. She’s also seen the studies that show sled dogs have abnormal lung changes due to prolonged heavy breathing, gastric ulcers from the stress of racing, and arthritis and other injuries that leave them crippled if they are fortunate to live long.


“We believe that this particular race compromises the health and welfare of the canine participants,” Hodges said. “The race would violate animal cruelty laws against overworking or overdriving dogs in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Of course, Alaska has no such law.”


Alaska isn’t about to get one, either. Short of an entire team of dogs dying, there’s not much that will change the opinion of most Alaskans that the Iditarod is a good thing and that dogs are, well, dogs.


Organizers have become savvy in recent years about how to deal with bleeding hearts when it comes to treatment of the dogs. They employ a team of veterinarians to keep the dogs healthy, give them checkups at key points in the race, and do autopsies for cause of death.


Two years ago, they suspended a top musher who was seen hitting and kicking his dogs after they refused to keep going on a stretch of ice. And just the other day, planes were called in to airlift dogs whose mushers had gotten stuck in the storm that snared Packer.


Still, how many dog deaths are reasonable? How many more must die before the fun is finally sucked out of the sport?


Yes, the race is a tradition, one of the last great tests of endurance for dogs and their masters. There’s something to be said for that, even if the dogs, unlike humans, have no choice about competing.


Unfortunately for Dizzy and Grasshopper, this was one test they couldn’t pass.



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