Friday, March 29, 2013

I nominate Dorado and May sled dogs of the year!

3/27/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser
Mitch Seavey 2013 Iditarod  winner and dogs (Internet Photo)

My previous column on the history of the “Last Great Race On Earth” began Mar. 3 in Willow, Alaska. Dogs happily barked, nervous drivers checked their rigs and on-lookers cheered as sixty-six teams of sled dogs and mushers began the 1,000 mile harrowing race across the frozen landscape to Nome. Nine days later, Mitch Seavey, 53, claimed his place as a two-time (and oldest) winner in the 41-year history of the event. Last year, his 25-year old son Dallas won.

I followed the race via the Internet with fear and trepidation. I am not a fan of events where people or animals die. And for years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has released statistics about the dog death rate of this particular race. According to their records, at least 136 dogs have died under horrible conditions.

Last year, a column in the Alaska Dispatch newspaper, accused PETA of spreading misinformation and falsehoods about dog mushing and how poorly dogs were treated for the purpose of fooling the media. In the same column, the author validated PETA’s concerns with this statement:

 “Every time you lodge a protest, mushing figures out a way to remove the causes of your concerns. Mushing is much less cruel today: fewer dogs die or are injured; veterinarians outnumber mushers; dog booties are everywhere; and even the oldest among us can’t recall the last time they saw a musher carry a bullwhip or axe handle because everyone’s found a way to discipline teams without looking mean.”

Well. That’s interesting. I don’t know about you but I think putting on dog booties and not wielding axe handles is a good thing. In fact, it seems to me that whether they know it or not, both sides are cooperating in the best interests of the dogs—a win, win situation.

Unfortunately, once again, according to an AP story, the strange and possibly preventable death of another dog is raising hackles among handlers and PETA. From the outside looking in, it appears that this death could have been prevented.

Five year old, sled dog Dorado, died after being removed from the race on Mar. 11 because he was moving stiffly. He and other dogs were left in a lot set up to care for dogs left behind because of illness or injury. Most of those 135 dogs spent the night inside two airport buildings. Dorado and others slept behind a building that handlers believed would protect them from the elements. Instead, Dorado was buried by drifting snow during a severe windstorm and died by asphyxiation. Others survived.

Dorado’s death was the first incident of its kind and has sparked changes in the way dogs dropped from the race will be handled. Those include construction of shelters at two major checkpoints. Race officials have declined to assign blame to anyone including the volunteer veterinarian who checked the dogs at 3 a.m.

Dorado’s team went on to finish 34th in the race under Iditarod rookie, Paige Drobny of Fairbanks. Her husband, also a musher, said, “We thought our dog was being cared for. That’s the race organization’s responsibility. We, as mushers, trusted them.” Charges are pending.

In contrast, according to the Anchorage Daily News, another dog lived to race another day. On March 7, Newton Marshall, a Jamaican musher, stopped to help a fellow musher repair her sled. Somehow, May, an experienced, 9-year old race veteran, got loose and headed for freedom! (Newton ultimately withdrew from the race.)

May was on loan from another Iditarod Musher Jim Lanier. His wife posted the situation on Facebook and flew to Alaska to help in the cold search. May was spotted near checkpoints but eluded capture and it was feared that coyotes or wolves would attack her.

But May was on a mission. She wasn’t running to Nome, she was running back to the starting line, just miles from her home; scavenging food leftovers from other teams as she bypassed checkpoints.  There were lots of sighting reports of her but she wasn’t going north. She was heading south.

Her story was on television but the guys who found her were just as surprised as she was grateful. They were on machines. She was on foot and had been on the run, alone, in the Alaskan wilderness seven days. She had traveled 300-400 miles, subsisting on scraps; was skinny, limping with a bloody paw.

“We had just pulled over…and about 100 yards away a dog was trotting down the trail. It was coming at a pretty slow pace and we were waiting to see if someone on a four-wheeler or snow machine was with her,” said Matt Clark.

“I stopped my sled and got off and went to the ground and she came right up to me. She sat in my lap the entire trip back to Big Lake,” Kaitlin Koch said. “I’m still in utter amazement at how far she got.”

“It’s not so far-fetched for May. She’s a sled dog. She has completed the Iditarod numerous times,” according to Smith. “Everybody who has a dog has a tendency to think these sled dogs are Poodles or something and they’re not,” he said. “These are absolutely incredible athletes and they have the internal drive of an athlete.”

Like many traditions, the Iditarod will go on. It is a living part of Alaska history. It combines historical memories of the Great 1925 Race of Mercy with Alaskan’s love of mushing over machinery.

So here’s to Dorado and May, sled dogs of the year. One paid the ultimate price for running this race and the other lived. Neither won the race but both demonstrated before the world the qualities that endear all canines to humanity:

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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