Iditarod ends with no dog deaths

RARE OCCURRENCE: More than 1,100 dogs started 1,000-mile race.

March 20, 2010 

It looks to be a first in modern mushing.

As the final teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race crossed the finish line Saturday night, race officials said no dogs had died along the 1,000-mile marathon across Alaska.

"To stand there and watch that last team come in, I'll tell you, is the highlight of my veterinarian career," chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said after rookie Celeste Davis, the red lantern winner, arrived at the burled arch on Nome's Front Street.

A year without dog deaths is virtually unheard for the Iditarod. Supporters have long argued that the sheer number of dogs -- more than 1,100 started the race this year -- make a death statistically inevitable over the two-week competition.

Insiders can't remember a year without a dog death, with the 2009 race particularly embarrassing as six dogs succumbed to fluid-filled lungs, hypothermia and, in one case, a rocky airplane ride. The deaths are routinely a low point of the Last Great Race and provide ammunition to animal rights activists who see the grueling race as cruelly, fatally demanding on dogs.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded an investigation of the deaths last year, while Iditarod organizers increased scrutiny of would-be rookies this year, calling for veterinarians and race officials to rate potential Iditarod contenders on their ability to care for themselves and their dogs. Four mushers were asked to complete additional races before competing in the main event.

On Saturday, top finishers said relatively good trail conditions, low temperatures and the lack of a major storm this year helped teams complete the race faster and healthier than in 2009.

"It was a very easy trail to run, although it was a very cold race," said Whitehorse musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who clocked his fastest time in six Iditarods, finishing seventh.

While some dogs looked thinner this year as they struggled to maintain weight in temperatures of 30 and 40 below, the cold can help in other ways, Nelson said.

"Typically our greatest concern is dogs that might overheat," he said. "So when you have a colder race you can take that factor, typically, out of the equation."

After last year's high death count, the chief vet had appeared "on edge" at a mushers meeting before this year's race, said Tok musher Hugh Neff, who finished ninth. "He put out the word to all of us that the dogs were going to be checked more thoroughly and that after what happened last year, we needed to be more vigilant."

Nelson said he can't remember a year without any deaths since he became involved in the race in 1986. At least twice, there has only been one death: in 1994 and 1996.

The average number of deaths rose from about two a year in the 1990s to roughly three deaths a year as the field of mushers ballooned to 80 or 90 competitors around 2000, Nelson said.

"I think it's a pretty safe assumption that this is a first," he said of the zero deaths in 2010.

About 40 volunteer veterinarians lined the trail this year, their stethoscopes sometimes frozen stiff as coat hangers as they walked from dog to dog checking for heart, feet and weight problems.

Like some other top contenders, 2010 winner Lance Mackey's trademark style is to outpace faster teams by coaxing his dogs into surprisingly long runs on little rest. At the finish line, Mackey, who claimed an unprecedented fourth-straight victory, said his winning team was as tired as any he's driven to Nome, but that he doesn't think his technique jeopardizes the dogs.

"I'm not going to win the Iditarod at the expense of my team," the Fairbanks musher told reporters.

One fierce critic of the Iditarod, Margery Glickman of Miami, Fla., who founded the Sled Dog Action Coalition in 1999, says officials aren't doing enough to protect dogs.

"If it's true that there have been no dog deaths, I hope that remains the case for however long this race is run and I hope that they make other improvements," Glickman said Saturday.

For example, she said, race officials ought to require mushers to take mandatory rests at checkpoints and shorten the length of the race overall to reduce not only deaths but injuries and illness.

Mushers take a 24-hour rest somewhere along the trail. They're required to make an eight-hour stop along the Yukon River and take another eight-hour rest at one of the final checkpoints before the finish.

But forcing teams to make additional mandatory stops could lead to more injuries, not less, as teams rushed from checkpoint to checkpoint, Schnuelle said.

"I've always been a person who would rather run slow and steady than fast and rest long. I've always brought big teams to the finish line that way," said Schnuelle, who won the 2009 Yukon Quest and finished each of the past two Iditarods with 13 of his original 16 dogs.

"The slower you go, the less injury prone the travel is," he said.


For videos of mushers and profiles of their dogs, read Iditarod Live, the ADN's sled blog, at adn.com/iditarodlive. Twitter updates: twitter.com/iditarodlive. E-mail Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com.

Iditarod awards banquet today

Which musher took the best care of his or her dogs? Who was the best sport?

Mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race gather at 3:30 p.m. today in Nome for the annual awards banquet, where contenders trade stories and collect accolades for their speed and conduct along the 1,000-mile trail.

One question that will likely remain unanswered, however, is how they fared in the race's first effort to drug-test mushers. Iditarod director Stan Hooley said he doesn't expect to see results from tests conducted in White Mountain and Nome until mid-week.

"If there's a positive test, at some point through the process that will become public knowledge," Hooley said.

Meet the Jamaican record-holder

The first musher from Jamaica to enter the Iditarod reached Nome succesfully. Newton Marshall finished in 47th place, covering the course in 12 days, 4 hours and 27 minutes and arriving on Front Street at 7:27 p.m. Friday.

Marshall, a resident of St. Anne Parish, said before the start that he was determined to make it to Nome and excited to see the "lovely" landscape along the way.

"Anywhere I place, you know, I just have to deal with that," he said.

-- The Associated Press

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