The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- a 1,150-mile run from Anchorage to Nome that takes place over 2 weeks in mid-March -- is the biggest event of Alaska's year, not only in terms of sports, but also culturally and as a unifying event. The race is big news -- TV anchors speculate on the mushers' strategies at the top of the evening news and break away live to cover the top finishers, regardless of the time of day or night. Schoolchildren plot the progress of their favorite teams on maps and over the Internet. Increasingly, the world is joining in. Visitors, especially Europeans, fill hotels in Anchorage and Nome for the Iditarod. Flight services drop spectators at remote checkpoints along the trail to see the mushers come through. It's a wonderful time of year to visit, with light skies, excellent late-season skiing, and winter festivals enlivening many towns. Nome goes crazy when the mushers hit. Even if the first team crosses the finish line at 3am in -30°F (-34°C) weather, a huge crowd turns out to congratulate the winner. And crowds keep turning out until the last competitor crosses the finish line.
Given all this, it's difficult to report objectively on the activities of animal rights opponents to the race, currently led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). While PETA opposes all human use of animals, some mainstream animal welfare advocates also criticize the race. They charge that dogs can suffer and die on the trail and, while not racing, are inhumanely tethered in dog lots. Iditarod mushers insist that the dogs, which are worth thousands of dollars, receive veterinary care superior to the doctoring that most people get. Sick dogs have been evacuated from the trail by helicopter, and mushers who abuse dogs are kicked out of the sport.
However, harmful practices do occur in the lower ranks of mushing. For example, uncontrolled breeding by amateurs or careless professionals produces too many pups that end up being killed, and sled dogs can be tethered excessively or otherwise abused. Successful mushers -- including Iditarod competitors -- must give their dogs thorough exercise, as only that way can the animals perform as athletes, but there's no law limiting how many dogs an irresponsible musher or pet owner can acquire or how often they must be run.
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