A Husky Debate: Charges of Exclusion And Cruelty Trail Alaska's Sled Race

SURE, bitter winds, deep snow, and sharp-hoofed moose are problems for the 58 mushers plying the Alaskan bush in the world's most famous sled-dog race.

But competitors and organizers of this year's Iditarod face more than just the angst of the arctic. Out-of-state animal-rights groups are stepping up their criticism of the treatment of dog teams, while native Americans in the state complain they are increasingly being left out of the event.

The result is that this most-Alaskan institution - one that organizers like to tout as the ``last great race'' - faces something of an identity crisis. Behind the soul-searching looms the inevitable question that arises in the ``last frontier'': Just what is Alaska today?

``To me, the Iditarod is another piece of faux Alaskana, a sort of gigantic painted gold pan with paws,'' wrote Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Doogan, a lifelong state resident, recently.

The 1,150-mile Iditarod, which commemorates a 1925 sled-dog relay that delivered medical supplies to Nome, has long been denounced by more zealous national animal-rights groups as ``barbaric.'' They cite as evidence the dog deaths that have occurred every year.

But more recently, David Wills, a vice president of the mainstream Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), condemned the race after four years of observing it and helping to craft rule changes intended to improve dog care.

After last year's race, in which the only death came in four-time champion Susan Butcher's team, Mr. Wills said the race could be safe only if it is radically revamped. That one of the best and most careful mushers suffered a death on her team proves the race should be shortened and possibly run in stages rather than as an endurance event, Wills said then.

``My point is the dogs are dying for no reason,'' he says. ``The next thing we're going to be looking at is cruelty [charges].'' Virtually all of Iditarod's national sponsors pulled out this year, costing organizers an estimated $450,000, about a third of the annual budget.

In response, Iditarod organizers launched a campaign to stimulate in-state financial support. The slogan for this year's race is ``Alaskan and Alive,'' and the appeal to Alaska pride seems to have bridged the fiscal gap. More sponsorships from Alaska-based companies, an increase in paid Iditarod Trail Committee memberships, and creative marketing have made up for lost revenues.

One particularly successful initiative was the auctioning of dog-sled rides at the ceremonial Anchorage race start. Iditarod fans from around the nation spent more than $35,000 to ride in mushers' sleds along the first few miles of the trail.

The result of the fund-raising campaign is a total prize purse of $350,000, up from last year's $318,000, and a financial standing that is more diversified and inoculated from politics, says Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley.

``This race has endured more than most events could in terms of negative publicity,'' he says. ``And yet, here we are today, in better financial health than we have been for many years.''

Iditarod board president Matt Desalernos is one of the most vocal mushers, denouncing outsiders for their interference with the race. Mr. Desalernos, from Nome, is not worried that pro-Alaska sentiment may turn off animal lovers who would be potential Iditarod fans.

``For every one of those guys, I'm sure there's a number in some other group like the National Rifle Association who thinks that's pretty cool,'' he says. ``Look at the last election. Those votes are coming from somewhere, and I'm sure those people aren't card-carrying members of the HSUS.''

Two-time champion Martin Buser, less shrill in his rhetoric, also says most people think well of the Iditarod. ``I think what the general public has realized is we are genuinely interested in our dogs. We don't put up a smoke screen,'' says the Swiss-born race record-holder.

Still, Iditarod organizers have been accused of running roughshod over Alaska native villages on the race route, many of which are impoverished.

At the same time, critics say the race's growing professional nature makes participation nearly impossible for Alaska native American mushers from the roadless bush. In the Iditarod's early years, up to a third of the competitors were native. This year, only one lined up at the Anchorage start.

Even though the Iditarod is seen as an extension of native traditions, ``I haven't seen much effort in putting any type of education out to the native areas,'' State Rep. Beverly Masek, an Athabascan Indian and former Iditarod competitor, said at a recent legislative hearing.

Iditarod officials acknowledge that relations in the villages are sometimes strained but say they are seeking to boost native involvement and benefits.

At their best, Iditarod mushers can be much-needed role models in the villages along the trail, where teenage pregnancy, alcohol abuse, and other social ills are rampant. The mushers' skills are culturally relevant to rural Alaska natives, and many girls identify with the Iditarod's women, who compete as equals with men.

One Iditarod heroine is Libby Riddles, who in 1985 became the first woman to win the race. She is back in the competition after a six-year hiatus. ``I really think that dog-mushing is an incredible sport,'' she says. ``There's a lot of really good, wholesome things involved.''

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