A week ago, officials from the Iditarod Dog Sled Race announced that 4 dogs from one musher’s team tested positive for a banned substance. The substance used was tramadol, an opioid pain reliever that could help dogs run through the pain and push themselves harder and farther than they should.
While they initially refused to release the name of the musher on the grounds that they couldn’t prove he had intentionally doped his dogs, yesterday they announced that 4-time winner Dallas Seavey was the accused musher.
Seavey released a 17-minute-long statement on YouTube (which you can watch here) denying that he or any of his staff knowingly gave Tramadol to any of his dogs. He insists:
“I believe this [drug] was given to my dogs maliciously…I have spent the last 10 years becoming the best musher I possibly can. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Iditarod proclaims itself to be “The Last Great Race on Earth.” Held in March every year, the race covers nearly a thousand miles in Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. According to the Iditarod website, the reasons for running the race are “to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan Huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome.”
While the doping allegations are new to the race this year, accusations of dog abuse have been rampant for years. At least 152 dogs have died during the Iditard race since it began in 1973. That doesn’t include dogs that die after the race or during training before the race, and it also doesn’t include statistics from the first few years that the race was run.
The dogs are forced to run a distance roughly the length from New York City to Miami in as little as 8 days, with only 40 mandatory hours of rest. They are forced to run through blizzards, white out conditions, and temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the dogs wind up suffering from bruised or bloody feet (despite the boots they’re required to wear), pulled or strained muscles, stress fractures, intestinal viruses, and dehydration.
According to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, more than half of the dogs have gastric ulcers caused by “sustained strenuous exercise,” and according to a report in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 4 out of every 5 dogs to finish Iditarod winds up with lung damage. About half the dogs in any given year are unable to complete the race.
When they aren’t racing, most sled dogs are chained to tiny dog houses. Some dogs are driven crazy by such restraint and spin in circles.
Iditarod is facing the same dwindling levels of support as Sea World and the Ringling Brothers Circus. Since key sponsors and television companies have been withdrawing their funding, the prize money is less than it was a decade ago. The new doping allegations have already caused more sponsors to pull from the race.
How long will this dog “sport” continue? Only time will tell, but it seems time to give dogs a break from the harrowing Iditarod race.