'Dog’s beating left me appalled, sick and shocked' (Whitehorse Star, Feb. 23/2011).
Ed. note: some readers may find this letter’s graphic details of the violence committed against an Alaskan sled dog disturbing.
It is around one year ago today as I write this, fewer than two weeks before the legendary 2011 Iditarod race start, that, as a dog handler at a private kennel location in Alaska, I witnessed the extremely violent beating of an Iditarod racing dog by one of the racing industry’s most high-profile top 10 mushers. Be assured the beating was clearly not within an “acceptable range” of “discipline”.
Indeed, the scene left me appalled, sick and shocked.
After viewing an individual sled dog repeatedly booted with full force, the male person doing the beating jumping back and forth like a pendulum with his full body weight to gain full momentum and impact.
He then alternated his beating technique with full-ranging, hard and fast, closed-fist punches like a piston to the dog as it was held by its harness splayed onto the ground.
He then staggeringly lifted the dog by the harness with two arms above waist height, then slammed the dog into the ground with full force, again repeatedly, all of this repeatedly.
The other dogs harnessed into the team were barking loudlyand excitedly, jumping and running around frenzied in their harnesses.
The attack was sustained, continuing for several minutes perhaps over four minutes, within view at least, until the all-terrain vehicle I was a passenger on turned a curve on the converging trails, and the scene disappeared from view.
This particular dog was just under 10 days out from commencing racing in the long distance Iditarod race. It was later seen to have survived the attack, although bloodied as a result.
Personally, I have never witnessed such a violent attack on a living creature before. The image of that explosion of anger and physical force of one man on a smaller animal is burnt to my memory.
Now, a year on, I look back at last year’s cover page article in a prominent Alaskan news publication, “Surviving the Iditarod”, and the irony of my experience is deep.
The article illustrating the harsh climatic conditions of the endurance race which threatens the dogs’ health and lives, and the conscious, detailed and careful measures taken by vets, mushers and the Iditarod organization to ensure each racing dog has the greatest chance of arriving at Nome humanely treated and alive.
It is not the beating itself that has created a persistent unease for me, disturbing enough as it is.
But the stone-walled, silent denial that followed engenders my persistent need to have a voice for that dog and others that may endure the same abuse away from public scrutiny.
The other witnesses of this attack are two young people, too scared or too stupid when requested to assist me and provide testimony to the Alaskan state trooper, who I notified about the attack. The young people explained to me, “They are not my dogs,” and “I am spineless.”
There was a kennel inspection whereby no person was located on-site to be interviewed by the same state trooper.
Despite that, further investigations based on my account of the attack could not be carried out without the testimony of a second witness in accordance to state law in Alaska.
Animal welfare agencies, the Alaska SPCA and the City of Alaska were not in a position of authority to provide me with assistance.
Two months after the attack, and after many failed attempts to communicate directly with the Iditarod committee, I contacted PETA U.S.A. for assistance.
In response, the Iditarod committee stated, “The Iditarod is an event, not an enforcement agency,” and Mush With Pride and the state troopers were referred to as more appropriate organizations.
Mush With Pride is an immensely valuable organization developed by sled dog racing industry representatives to self-promote and educate mushers on the wellbeing of sled racing dogs.
In an early phone conversation with Mush With Pride, it was explained that intentional dog abuse is not addressed within their bylaws or objectives; (they) “assume all mushers intend to provide adequate care of their dogs.”
My written requests to add direct abuse to their policy of education have been met with more silence.
The impasse of the situation is of dire consequences to the wellbeing of racing sled dogs in Alaska.
The intention of the state animal protection law, which relies on the strength of several witnesses to stand up to dog abuse, is evidently prone to fail due to “whistle blowers syndrome”.
There is apparently no alternative Alaskan organization willing to acknowledge or openly address intentional sled dog abuse.
Witnesses are easily rendered silent in the face of high-profile employers, and witnesses are dead-ended by the law, yet the relevant race event organizations continue to promote this high-profile, abusive musher throughout “The Greatest Race on Earth”.
That said, where does any hope for responsibility and reform of this behaviour lie? Who is responsible?
Names are used to over-simplify and dust down complex issues into politics, polarization and denial, yet if labels are used as they have been, so be it.
I went to Alaska from Australia last year as an Iditarod race and sled dog enthusiast, and I was labelled an “activist” by the Iditarod committee.
I actively oppose sled dog abuse in any form. I actively promote the recognition of abuse and misconduct. I actively promote the need for re-education and reform in the high-profile arena of sled dog racing and commercial sled dog mushing in Alaska.
I speak for those dogs unable to voice their own needs, and those Alaskans and Yukoners who wish to be informed.
Recent news has emerged from Canada regarding the large-scale slaughter of commercial sled dogs near Whistler, B.C.
Consider the cultural and economic value and continued promotion around the world of the Iditarod and other sled dog races within Alaska, and the proud and compassionate nature I witnessed that regular Alaskans have for their pet animals.
Given this, perhaps it is time to pursue, at the least, an open discussion on the ethics and performance of mushers away from the major events, in a progressive, honest manner in Alaska.
For all is not as it seems in the Alaskan sled dog racing industry.
Some of those truly enduring, heroic dogs continue to survive for sport, culture and industry.
Let it be with humane treatment and integrity, if only because, as desired and promoted by the Alaskan sled dog racing and mushing community, the world is watching.
So should Alaskans [and Yukoners be watching].