The times are a changin’

The times are a changin' Open letter to an unnamed 'proud Yukon Quest sponsor': Recently I received an e-mail message from a representative of a US-based business, which sponsors the Yukon Quest. The writer described himself as "a personal and business s

The times are a changin’

Open letter to an unnamed ‘proud Yukon Quest sponsor’:

Recently I received an e-mail message from a representative of a US-based business, which sponsors the Yukon Quest.

The writer described himself as “a personal and business supporter,” who had “followed media through the entire race on two occasions.” He wrote that in all his years “of being active in the Yukon Quest,” he had “never been exposed to any type of animal cruelty, such as is displayed or noted on the Sled Dog Watchdog website.”

I sent him a quick response, which I admit, I could have put more thought into, but these days I find myself not having much patience, especially for people with firsthand knowledge of the Quest (dog deaths and injuries), who really ought to know better.

The name of my most vocal detractor was brought up by the sponsor; a local Yukoner who had previously written to the Yukon News in October 2007, making light of my personal advocacy on behalf of sled dogs (I was told to “get a life”). After looking at my response to this person in the ‘feedback section’ of the website, I was told in the e-mail that this man’s opinion was “no less important than anyone else’s.”

These are the primary defences of the dog mushing/dog racing industry offered up in that letter:

“Yes, sled dogs live much of their lives tethered to their dog houses—how is that any worse than the way much of the human population lives?”

“Sled dogs get high-quality meals a couple of times a day(!)”

“How many sled dogs die each year doing what they love to do compared to the number of dogs who are ‘ploughed under’ at the Whitehorse garbage dump every year because nobody wants them?” This is a good question to ask of the Yukon Quest—what is the official body count of sled dogs who have been killed for the sake of human ego, greed and entertainment (winter tourism) during all the years the race has been run?

Is it somewhere around 30 dogs or so, including the three who were killed in the 2007 race? Finally, he had seen “professional mushers who have chiropractors to keep their dogs in shape—how many of us have ever done that?” I would simply answer that, if the dogs weren’t being hurt by their owners, they wouldn’t need to see a chiropractor.

As the Quest never responds to public criticism (nor is the organization required to be the least bit publicly accountable by its major supporter, Tourism Yukon) I went down to the Quest office at the early race signup on a Saturday afternoon in late summer 2008 with a fellow animal advocate. We asked if Yukon-based executive director for the Quest, Stephen Reynolds, would be willing to sign a public guarantee that Quest mushers do not cull/kill dogs.

Reynolds seemed somewhat incredulous at hearing about this issue. It was actually veteran Quest musher Frank Turner (mentioned as one of the ‘good examples’ among dog mushers in the sponsor’s message) who told CBC immediately prior to the 2007 race that “the Quest should admit that culling is part of the competitive racing world and take measures to discourage it.”

Turner furthermore stated that prospective Quest mushers should sign a disclosure stating that “to participate in the Quest you declare that you do not practise culling of dogs.” The 2007 Quest race marshal Mike McCowan replied that mushers’ culling practices were “not the Quest’s business.” (That is as far as the culling issue went with CBC.)

A Quest staffer said that Turner’s public stance was “just one opinion.”

Add to this small list, Quest/Iditarod musher John Schandelmeier, who has, on more than one occasion spoken up about the number of dogs (according to Schandelmeier, “950 sled dogs go through the Fairbanks Animal Shelter each year”—reported by News reporter/Quest trail reporter Genesee Keevil during 2007 Quest) discarded in Alaska, due to the heartless and irresponsible breeding by Alaskan mushers (historically, more Quest racers hail from Alaska than from the Yukon, on an annual basis).

And no, Reynolds had no intention of signing any such document.

The Yukon Quest apparently lets any cruel (or possibly pathological), ill-prepared individual participate in this barbaric race. I give you the example of the “homeless musher” from the 2007 Quest, who abandoned his 33 dogs in Montana in the winter of 2008, pled guilty to cruelty charges and got off easy in court (his dogs were kept in the family, taken in by the disgraced musher’s dad, a Maine lawyer and ex-sled dog racer himself).

Another US musher was disqualified for “poor dog treatment” near the start of last year’s race—good that he was disqualified, but it would be enlightening to know what he actually did. Quest head veterinarian Vern Starks was interviewed by CBC’s Sandi Coleman about this incident immediately following the 2008 race. Whatever this musher did must have been pretty bad as Starks refused to divulge the reason, and Coleman, like most of the ‘Quest supporters with microphones’ at CBC Yukon, did not pursue an answer with the required vigour.

You, ‘Mr. Proud Sponsor,’ should also be asking similar questions of the Yukon Quest organization.

Ask about the many ways in which the Quest four-legged ‘athletes’ are injured each year while being expected to run up to, and over 100 miles a day regardless of the weather or trail conditions—afflictions such as bleeding stomach ulcers, bloody diarrhea, penile frostbite, cramping, dislocations, fractures, muscle and tendon tears, tendonitis, dehydration, hypothermia, raw paws, airway and lung damage, pneumonia, dogs forced to run while ill (vomiting, diarrhea), while injured or pregnant, etc.

After the 2007 race, could you not have at least asked the Quest to ‘take it easy/ask the racers to slow down’ and kill one or two fewer dogs? The 2008 race was also very hard on dogs due to the extreme cold and inadequate trail preparation—the Quest was lucky that no dogs (or mushers) were killed last year.

It is extremely gratifying to me personally that the message about the exploitation and cruelty inherent in the Yukon Quest is getting out to other people who have come to care about ‘sled dogs’—might have something to do with the Quest’s sizeable fundraising shortfall this year.

Terry Cumming