Earlier this month, in the middle of the 1000-mile Iditarod sled dog race across Alaska, a five-year-old husky mix named Dorado was left behind at a checkpoint. His musher, rookie Paige Drobny, decided he was suffering from sore muscles, and dropped him at Unalakleet, an Inupiat village on the Bering Sea. There was no room inside the shelter, so Dorado and 35 other dogs were chained up outside. The temperature reached 15 degrees below zero, with wind gusting to 45 MPH. He was to be picked up the next day, but he didn't make it. By daylight, drifting snow had completely covered several of the dogs, and Dorado was found dead of asphyxiation.
Everything about the situation, except Dorado's death, was standard operating procedure. Dogs unable to continue the grueling run are dropped at checkpoints, left to wait in the open for officials to collect them and fly them back to the race's start at Anchorage. In response to this incident, race officials are considering changing protocols for dog drop-offs.
"This type of self-examination is an important part of ITC's historical commitment to the improvement of the welfare of the canine athletes that annually participate in the Race," officials said in a statement.
Dorado is the first "canine athlete" to die in the Iditarod since 2009, when six dogs died. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, more than 140 dogs have died in the history of the race. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the sled dog industry as a whole, a segment of which considers purposefully euthanizing slow and unwanted dogs a part of doing business.
Sled dogs are sporting animals. Your companion curled up on the rug has as much in common with sled dogs as a girl's pet pony does with the failed racehorses who are shipped to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered for food. And where sled dogs are common, mostly in Alaska and British Columbia, they have almost no legal protections.
Every year, many, many dogs are deliberately killed by kennels or breeders, because they have no future in racing. It's called "culling," and it's the price of fielding a competitive team.
"Thousands of dogs are bred for this, but not every dog is a fast runner," [PETA's David] Byer says. "Those that can't measure up are often killed."
There are no stats on the number of dogs culled, because they're not required to be reported. Only when a particularly gruesome instance surfaces does the practice become public, like in 1991, when Iditarod racer Frank Winkler was found with 14 dead or dying puppies in the back of his pickup truck. He couldn't afford to have a vet properly euthanize them, he said, so he shot some, and bludgeoned others with the blunt end of an ax.
Such instances are relatively rare among top-level racers. Those who compete regularly often have the funds and infrastructure to avoid culls, and the Iditarod has been remarkably proactive in punishing mushers accused of animal cruelty. The worst abuses come in the tourism industry.
A sled dog tour company at BC ski resort Whistle bred a large number of dogs for the influx of visitors for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. When tourism dipped following the games, they simply had too many animals. Two months after the Olympics, an employee was ordered to cull between 56 and 100 healthy dogs. He shot some, slit the throats of others, and buried them together in a pit. It would never have come out if not for the employee suing the company, claiming post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In response, British Columbia tightened its animal abuse laws, but only on a cosmetic level. Sled dogs are still allowed to be culled, but only by gunshot. Alaskan laws are even more lax, the will to enforce them almost nonexistent. Culling goes on, justified not only by economics, but by a bizarre mercy:
"To me, if the choice is that the dog's going to suffer for the rest of its life by being left alive, I don't think that's a very good option," [the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan] Butcher once said.
The situation where these are the only two options is entirely artificial. Mushers breed dogs only to run, and the ones who can't are expendable. There's no safety net for them—shelters and sled dog rescue groups are strained well past capacity—so culling is often the only choice. The death of Dorado (left) was an accident, but an accident that could only happen in an industry where dogs are chattel to be disposed of when no longer useful.