Lately I have posted stories of escapes from going through river ice while running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Obviously the dogs, being in it with the driver, experienced those narrow escapes at the same time. When running such stories, I fully expect to be assaulted by individuals and organizations who are separated so far from the land (“too many generations off the farm”) and hold such a skewed, unnatural view of the natural world that they would, if they could, protect even free-born wolves from wild wolfdom.
These people tend to be well-intentioned and I admire their concern. I really do enjoy sitting down for a session of give and take with the few who are willing. However most are so loud, and talk-over-you overbearing, no civil discussion is possible.
Having helped found the Wildlife Information Center for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and having anchored it for a number of years back in the day, I’ve fielded my share of animal protection extremists’ harangues. Most I’ve met are so reality-challenged that, seeing a wolf’s very life is danger and death and not many live to old age, they would rather do something like house wild wolves as indoor city dwellers than let them kill and suffer the harsh privations of the wilderness pack.
But lift that good-hearted protector’s apartment out of the city, put it down in the wilderness and open the door. A thousand out of a thousand wolves would bolt for life on the edge. Then the question about what is and what is not animal cruelty should be explored by the would-be protector whose misplaced attempt had kept an animal from performing what genetics wire him to do.
Sled dogs have always been at the top of the priority list for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Before the advent of our race, the keeping and running of sled dogs in Alaska was on a downhill slide. Now, however, there exist hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of kennels large and small. The animals, the pride of their owners, live healthy lives, excited to be doing that which their genes makes them most fulfilled doing.
Strident do-gooders who criticize and campaign their way around the animal-use landscape have always hovered nearby, trying to create a better place for dogs to live—their way. Some would altogether end such practices as mushing dogs. (Because they, themselves wouldn’t, a dog couldn’t possibly—of its own volition—want to pull a laden sled through Arctic conditions!) Their tenderness, well-intentioned though it may be, only endangers the very animals they profess to care about.
Down through time sled dogs have kept their place because they have filled a rather narrow role: there’s work to be done they’re bred to love doing. Do away with their rugged vocation and they teeter precariously on the edge of extinction. Like every other working animal, sled dogs need protection from the self-appointed pure-in-heart types that would end their work and purpose.
To continue to thrive, all any husky that would remain a real husky really requires is rough work to do and men and women hardy enough to face into the storm with them and weather the vicissitudes of a long winter trail.
Like huskies, whose very existence as sled dogs (as we know them) demands work to be done, sled dog drivers need work or recreation that requires the use of sled dogs. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and its almost innumerable spin-offs have given thousands of individuals a focus and reason for driving dogs.
So is the Iditarod Race inhumane? If the dogs could only talk I doubt not that they’d thank all of the well-meaning no-nothings who only want to “save” them, but they’d tell them to “Give it a rest ; truly worthwhile causes are all around you.”