Billed as the Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race could more aptly be billed the world's most notorious and controversial competition. It is a 1,000-plus mile charge across Alaska that requires a good dog team, a musher who understands his or her dogs -- what they can and cannot do -- and a great deal of luck for victory, not to mention a willingness to push to the physical and mental limits of exhaustion. The men and women and dogs who run the Iditarod are a tough lot who mush through their own pain and illness, as well as whatever the late Alaska winter offers.
Critics say the mushers drive their dogs to death, but I investigated those claims for the Atlantic in March 1995 in "The Perilous Iditarod." I wrote a history of the Alaskan husky for Natural History in March 1996, "The Making of a Marathon Mutt," and I followed the race, start to finish, in a Cessna Super Cub. I have not seen anyone actually drive their dogs to death. I'm not sure you could anyway, because if a dog or dogs are in distress, they will quit, refuse to run. People caught abusing dogs are thrown out of the race. That is not to say that human error and negligence have not caused the death of dogs in the Iditarod. They have, and that is not excusable. But the deaths are the result of individual actions or inactions; they are not caused by the race. Dogs have also been felled by hidden health problems and enraged moose.