Spending two weeks at 10 below zero chasing a pack of Huskies through the Alaskan wilderness is not my idea of a good time. I assume, however, that the mushers enjoy this exercise in masochism. But from a sled dog's point of view, is a 1,000 mile race in the arctic snow a form of animal cruelty or is it just plain fun?
I don't know the answer to that question, but it is useful to put the dangers of the Iditarod into perspective. Between 2007 and 2013, exactly one dog died during the Iditarod -- a sled dog named Dorado, who was asphyxiated after being covered by blowing snow. While Dorado's death was tragic, the scale of canine deaths associated with sled racing pales in comparison to the carnage caused by another form of animal competition – thoroughbred horse-racing.
The statistics are shocking. Between 2009 and 2012, 2,300 horses died at state-regulated race tracks in the United States. And, on average, 24 horses die each week on American race tracks. That's nearly four deaths per day associated with horseracing, compared to one death in seven years for the Iditarod. (See here for more on the tragedies of horse-racing.)
Given the disproportionate cruelty associated with horse racing versus sled dog racing, why does a once-a-year dog race tend to generate more outrage from animal lovers than the daily carnage on America's horse tracks? I can think of several reasons. One is that dogs are our pets and have special status in our hearts, whereas horses are more likely to be regarded as work animals. Another is that simply being outdoors in the arctic winter seems unbearably cruel to those of us who live in more hospitable climates. Finally, there is the issue of social class. Mushers tend to be rural working class people (24% of the 69 competitors in this year's event are women). In contrast, horse racing -- "the sport of kings" – is a form of recreation for the rich and famous, the leisure class.
But even though a horse is a thousand times more likely to die on the track than a sled dog, in the next life, I would much rather come back as a thoroughbred colt in Kentucky bluegrass country than a Husky puppy in Alaska destined for the Iditarod. I hate cold weather.