Mushing: It's an Alaska Thing. You Wouldn't Understand.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Mushing: It's an Alaska Thing. You Wouldn't Understand.

Stung by critics and sponsorship pullouts, Iditarod boosters rally around the Last Great Race
By Brian Alexander

It would be naive to say that the Humane Society's decision does not affect us," says Timberland spokesman Jay Steere of his company's announcement last fall that it was ending its half-million-dollar sponsorship of the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race. Steere insists that the outdoor shoe and clothing firm's exit was "primarily a marketing decision." But, he acknowledges, "If this were still an event where you get a bottle of red wine at the end, it's recreation. But with an individual winning $50,000, we thought we ought to look into what these dogs go through to get that $50,000."

Others are looking, too, following the announcement last spring by the Humane Society of the United States that it was officially denouncing the 1,160-mile mush from Anchorage to Nome. Talk of canine injuries and deaths has nagged the event for years, as has mounting opposition from radical animal-rights groups. But the Iditarod took a major and largely unexpected public relations hit when David Wills, vice-president of investigations for the not-so-radical Humane Society, appeared on Good Morning America to decree that "a race should not mean life or death for a dog."

That was all some key sponsors needed to hear, and now, as the world's most famous mushing race gets set for its 22d running on March 4, its organizing body, the Wasilla, Alaska-based Iditarod Trail Committee, is busy trying to make up for a loss of sponsorship dollars that has created a real crisis. Timberland pulled out on September 23, a week after Iams, the Ohio-based pet food company, said it would kick in the $175,000 contracted for 1995's race but would not be back in 1996. All this on the heels of exits by ABC Sports and Chrysler in 1993.

The ITC -- and Alaskans generally -- have reacted with typical defiance. "Alaskans are saying the hell with Lower 48 companies," says one highly placed ITC official. The group has circled the wagons by adopting the slogan "Iditarod '95, Alaskan and Alive." To close the gap, it is aggressively selling yearly ITC memberships for $30 each and is putting the bite on Alaskan corporations. ITC executive director Stan Hooley says that the strategy is working and that the ITC needs to make up only $150,000 more. And, he adds, the ITC is producing its own television package and marketing it to 100 domestic and international outlets, although two of the largest U.S. television syndicators turned down the deal.

Defiance or no, the Humane Society's announcement was shattering, especially because the ITC had spent four years working with the group to win its approval. Wills, who spent that time evaluating the Iditarod's dog-safety record, says he found that many dogs died through the practice of "culling," or killing puppies and dogs deemed unworthy of sled time (see "Iditarod's Dirty Secret," Dispatches, March 1992). In 1989, despite veterinarians' warnings, the ITC approved the use of aspirin for dogs, a practice that has led to fatal gastric ulcers, before backing down in the face of continual criticism by vets. And until three years ago, the ITC let unsuitable breeds race, including a team of standard poodles in 1988.

After protests by mushers like four-time winner Susan Butcher, who urged racers to clean up their sport, the ITC started cooperating with Wills, who suggested changes such as more frequent vet examinations at checkpoints and straw beds for the dogs at rest stops, both of which were adopted. But, says Wills, despite the reforms, "there has never been an Iditarod without a dog death." In the 1993 race, there were six. Last year, there was one -- a dog belonging to Butcher.

In the past, these deaths were attributed to a mysterious "sudden death" syndrome. But a necropsy performed on Butcher's dog pointed to "exertional myopathy," meaning the dog ran itself to death. Wills blamed the rigors of a marathon format in which mushers have a disincentive to rest. (Mushers are required to take breaks, but the clock in the Iditarod, unlike in a stage race, keeps running at rest stops.) The fact that Butcher had an unimpeachable safety record underscored Wills's concern: "Because it was Susan's dog," he says, "we knew it was not lack of care.

"The dogs do love to run," he adds, "and I see nothing wrong with mushing. The problem is the format of the race."

ITC officials have hotly condemned Wills's stand and say that outsiders simply don't understand the sport. Hooley says the Iditarod will not change its format to a stage race as requested by Wills, and most mushers support his decision. "The dogs' well-being is so much better off because of the racing," two-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser says, citing higher standards in breeding and raising brought about by the influx of money. Iditarod founder and ITC board member Joe Redington says the Humane Society is dead wrong: "The Iditarod knows how to take care of dogs better than anybody. The only thing that would stop the race would be an atomic war."

The ITC's appeal to donors may work, at least temporarily, but as the organization consumes sponsor and member dollars, it cuts into a shrinking pie. While the Iditarod may survive, the future looks bleak for other mushing races, such as the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-miler launched in 1984, which in recent years has reduced prize money, laid off employees, and briefly closed its office.

Downsizing suits some Iditarod mushers just fine. Redington says he longs for the days before money and marketing started pricing the average musher out of the contest. And while Buser likes the growth that the Iditarod has enjoyed, he says, "It doesn't matter if there's money at the finish line. I just want to prove who has the best dogs."

For his part, Wills believes the intense scrutiny on the race will eventually prompt more changes. "People up there have to realize," he says, "that you can't have the romantic myth of Jack London and then turn around and have your dogs die."

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