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PETA urges Nome DA to file cruelty charges over Iditarod dog's death

Craig Medred

The Nome District Attorney has been asked to file cruelty-to-animal charges against whomever is responsible for the death of Dorado, a sled dog dropped at Unalakleet during the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

The request came Monday from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Virginia based animal-rights group with its own problem with dead animals. PETA has come under fire for killing more than 27,000 pets left at its shelter over the last 15 years in its East Coast "shelter." Among them, about 48 dogs die there each year, according to USA Today, which said the state of Virginia has been investigating.

Last March, PETA admitted to national newspapers that it kills 95 percent of the animals left in its care, but "defended the practice and said accusations that 'PETA kills animals' are being made by a group representing 'animal exploiters who kill millions of animals every year.'" PETA considers the Iditarod one of the "animal exploiters."

According to its website, "PETA works to stop this miserable 'sport,' which can be grueling and even deadly for the animals forced to pull heavy loads over long distances at high speeds, often in extreme weather conditions."

Tired dogs regularly dropped

Iditarod officials concede the 1,000-mile race across the wilderness from Willow to Nome is a demanding athletic competition, but they say the dogs appear to enjoy it. Dogs have died from various injuries while running in past races, but there were no deaths in 2010-12, the longest stretch without a dog death in race history. Tired dogs are regularly dropped by mushers as they make their way north along the trail, and they typically get home safely.

That did not happen with Dorado, the only dog to die in Iditarod this year. He was a tired dog left with volunteers in the coastal village of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast. A primarily Alaska Native community of about 690 people, Unalakleet sits on a spit of sand where the Unalakleet River meets the ocean.

It is about 400 miles northwest of Anchorage, the state's largest city, and unconnected by road. The nearest connection to the Alaska road system would be the George Parks Highway about 350 miles to the east.

Dorado got overlooked by officials 

Five-year-old Dorado was dropped at the Unalakleet checkpoint by musher Paige Drobny, a fisheries biologist from Fairbanks. The dog was tired but otherwise in good health. He joined about 100 other dogs in similar condition in the dog yard at Unalakleet. The village was later hit by a blizzard. Volunteers, who worried about the dogs being exposed to blowing snow in winds near 50 mph, began moving the dogs into an airport hangar during the storm.

Dorado, according to Iditarod officials, somehow got overlooked. When he was noticed missing, volunteers started digging for him in the dog lot. He was found dead. Alaska huskies are famous for their ability to curl up in the snow, get buried and sleep -- the drifting snow over them forming its own insulating cocoon. But in this case, the snow packed in so tightly around Dorado, according to a necropsy, he asphyxiated.

PETA now wants someone held responsible. "PETA has sent an urgent letter to Nome District Attorney John A. Earthman calling for cruelty-to-animals charges to be filed against those whose negligence resulted in Dorado's death," it said in a press release. "Dorado would not have died if he had been given adequate protection from the extreme weather. Approximately 100 other 'dropped’ dogs spent the night indoors."

Nome DA: Appears accidental

Earthman said he's read the letter and is reviewing it. If law enforcement authorities were to discover that some criminal negligence was involved, he said, the state would certainly prosecute, but he noted that there needs to be more than an accident to meet that standard. What happened in Unalakleet appears to be an accident, he said.

Charging someone for such a death in Unalakleet would be like charging someone for animal abuse if their dog escaped the yard and was struck and killed by a motor vehicle, an everyday occurrence in most of America.

"Animal People," a newspaper that covers animal issues, estimates 1.2 million dogs are run over and killed by cars and trucks every year in the U.S.

It is unclear who is responsible for Dorado’s death, but PETA "senior cruelty caseworker" Kristin Simon in a letter to Earthman specifically blames Drobny, saying " the 5-year-old dog was left outdoors unattended by his owner." The accusation is untrue. Drobny did not leave the dog outdoors unattended. She left the dog in the care of Iditarod volunteers and race veterinarians, confident they could care for the dog as she moved north along the trail with the rest of her team.

Because of this, Simon does admit in the letter that maybe someone else should be held responsible.

"Had Dorado been provided with adequate shelter from such extreme weather, as were approximately 100 other 'dropped' sled dogs who spent the night in airport storage buildings, he surely would not have suffered this fate," she wrote Earthman. "It would appear that Drobny and any Iditarod organizers responsible for Dorado's safety can be directly blamed for this animal's horrific death.

"Alaska §11.61.140 states that '[a] person commits cruelty to animals if the person ... with criminal negligence, fails to care for an animal and, as a result, causes the death of the animal or causes severe physical pain or prolonged suffering to the animal." Alaska §03.55.100 defines minimum care as "an environment compatible with protecting and maintaining the good health and safety of the animal.'"

It is unclear where "criminal negligence" would rest in a case that involved people trying to get dogs out of a storm but losing track of one. Iditarod has said Dorado's death was an accident. And though PETA calls the animal's death as "horrific," veterinarians note that asphyxiation is a relatively painless way to die. Some animal shelters still use the method, though it has generally been phased out because of the danger of carbon dioxide gas to staff and because it can be stressful if large number of animals die together in a "gas chamber."

For a single dog curled up in the snow asleep, the death would likely be near painless. The dog would breathe its own carbon dioxide until it passed out and died in a way similar to the tens of thousands of animals formally "euthanized" by PETA in Virginia.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com