Death Race: the Cruelties of the Iditarod

Still from “Sled Dogs.”

On a free association basis, when you hear the words “dog abuse”, the first thing that comes to mind are pit bulls being trained to fight each other. Next would be Michael Vick’s conviction for both raising dogs for that purpose and killing those that were deemed inadequate to the task. “Sled Dogs”, which opens Friday, July 27th at the Cinema Village in New York and elsewhere later on, will leave you shocked at how the same sort of cruelty has been going on since 1964 in Alaska under the auspices of the Iditarod, a dog-sledding race that covers a thousand miles from its start in Seward in the south to the finish line in Nome in the northwest.

Not only are animals sickened onto death in this 1000 mile spectacle, they are culled from kennels devoted to training such dogs just as they were in Michael Vick’s kennel. If a dog in a sledding kennel was not equal to the task of pulling a sled, it would be terminated. Besides detailing the horrors associated with sled dog competition, “Sled Dogs” raises important questions about the relationship between humanity and animals. Are they simply property that an owner can dispose of at his discretion when they cannot fulfill his profit-making expectations?

The Canadian government ruled that they were indeed property in a landmark case that is examined in Fern Levitt’s powerful documentary.

Between April 21 and April 23, 2010, 56 dogs considered not up to the task of a marathon run in the Iditarod were “culled” from the Howling Dog Tours kennel in Whistler, British Columbia that were to be used either for the race or for pulling tourists around in winter resort hotels in Canada and the USA. Robert Fawcett, an employee of the appropriately named kennel, was given the job of “putting down” the useless dogs. Over the two day period Fawcett wrestled dogs to the ground, stood on them, and shot them or slit their throats. The dogs were then dumped into mass graves. The SPCA led the investigation of this incident and the film shows their corpses being excavated from the ground.

The trial created such revulsion—akin to the reaction against Michael Vick in the USA—that the Canadian government enacted a “reform”. Legislation would now require dogs to be “culled” humanely just as they are in dog pounds everywhere. Instead of bullets, you would use poison gas. For most people, this would seem to be a Hobson’s Choice reminiscent over debates on capital punishment. Is a drip solution of some toxic chemical supposed to be more civilized than a firing squad or hanging? Maybe the solution would be to ban capital punishment and, just as importantly, abolish the capitalist system that drives so many poor men and women to the point of desperation that they would take someone’s life.

Even if sled dogs, even those that didn’t make the grade, were able to live out their lives without being culled or dropping dead during the unnatural forced march of the Iditarod, their lives were not much different in dog terms than prisoners.

“Sled Dogs” also takes a close look at another controversial kennel, the Krabloonik in Snowmass Village, Colorado, a resort lodge that provided dog sledding rides for its clientele. Owner Dan MacEachen kept his animals in conditions that are fairly typical for this industry. They were out in the open behind his resort lodge, confined to a small space that included a box for them to sleep in and chained to stake that allowed them to walk around in circles. As the documentary points out, dogs are rather fastidious creatures that do not respond well to being close to where they both eat and defecate. Nor do they appreciate living in a life of solitude. Except when they were hauling around tourists, the dogs never interacted with each other. Running free or playing was out of the question, especially when they were MacEachen’s “property”. In many ways, there was not much difference between his animals and the chickens in Perdue’s massive poultry warehouses. And just like the government looks the other way when it comes to chickens suffering in such mills, the town council in Snowmass Village let MacEachen get away with his crimes for year despite protests by animal rights activists. They needed income from the tourists who flocked to his resort just as Alaska needs people to attend the Iditarod.

In December, 2013 MacEachen went on trial for animal cruelty. There was evidence that his dogs were malnourished and in need of medical care. The case dragged on for two years until he finally was punished in the predictable manner: 30 months probation, a $5,000 fine and 120 hours of public service.

As a useful counterpoint to these atrocity tales, “Sled Dogs” accompanies a rookie “musher” on his first Iditarod competition. The film begins with him waxing enthusiastically about his dream finally coming true. He loved his dogs, he loved the scenery along the 1000 mile route and he loved the competition. The film follows him as his illusions become shattered along the way. Every few hundred miles, one or more of his dogs cannot continue. They break bones, develop terrible digestive problems or simply lack the strength to continue.

The film points out that the Iditarod grew out of a non-sporting event that relied on sled dogs. In 1925 there was a diphtheria epidemic in Nome and the closest source of an antitoxin was in Anchorage, a thousand miles away and not passable by planes or ships at the time. The only way to transport the antitoxin was by sled dog but it was not delivered by a single musher. Instead, a relay team of twenty mushers who could count on 100 dogs carried the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles.

When more enlightened people took over Krabloonik, they soon discovered that it was impossible to make money without animals suffering. They might not suffer as much as under the old regime but they still suffered. Finally, they gave up on the business and sent the dogs to foster homes where they thrived.

Under hunting-and-gathering societies, dogs fit in as members of the collective. The Inuit used them for transportation and their American Indian brethren used them for both protection against wolves and for company. Given the utter indifference to profit in such societies, the dogs thrived. Perhaps the answer for all cruelty to animals—from poultry to Alaskan Huskies—is the elimination of the profit motive. That would also relieve a lot of the suffering that goes on at the top of the evolutionary ladder: homo sapiens.

Some on the left dismiss the idea of animal liberation, especially the ultra-dogmatic Socialist Equality Party whose World Socialist Website veers toward a conspiracist analysis having little to do with the much more dialectical approach of Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. In 2004, they published an article that began as follows:

The Blair government has outlined new proposals to further restrict civil liberties and strengthen the state apparatus under the guise of a crackdown on animal rights extremists.

The misanthropic outlook at the heart of animal rights extremism, with its denunciations of humans as no better, and in many instances much worse, than animals, has seen it involved in a series of provocative incidents that the government is now utilising for its own reactionary ends.

If it is misanthropic to oppose the Iditarod or training orcas to do stunts at SeaWorld, call me a misanthropist.

Henry Spira, who died in 1998 at the age of 71 was a foundational figure in the animal rights movement like Barry Commoner or Rachel Carson’s was to the environmentalist movement. He was also a Trotskyist in his youth, just like me. Unlike the carnival sideshow Trotskyism of the WSWS, Spira saw no contradiction between human rights and animal rights. Even though his 20 years in the SWP was not a factor in his becoming an activist in this movement, there was enough of his experience in the party that left him open to the possibilities of this new movement. (At least you can credit the sect for not having written an attack on animal liberation, even if their failure to write a single article about it amounts to benign neglect.)

Spira left the party a year or so before I joined. I regret never having met him. Although Peter Singer is a controversial figure holding some dubious ideas, Spira was inspired by his book Animal Liberation.

In the 80s, Spira raised money for a full-page New York Times ad demanding that Frank Perdue prove that his hens lived in “chicken heaven” as well as one that featured a rabbit with bandages over its eyes asking, “How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty’s sake?”

In a must-read profile on Spira that appeared in the November 26, 1989 NY Times, his love of cats went a long way toward explaining why he saw animal rights as an extension of his socialist convictions:

HENRY SPIRA WORKS FROM home, a roomy rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that looks like an office first, a cat playground second, and his residence only as an afterthought. One room is dominated by word-processing equipment. A second is filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with files. And in the living room, where an immense worktable stretches along one wall, the furniture consists of an old couch and two chairs covered in Naugahyde (leather is not an option here). Pictures of Siamese cats hang over the fireplace and a cat jungle gym dominates the hall. From this Spartan dwelling Spira (pronounced SPEE-ra) has run a major command post in this country’s rapidly growing animal-rights movement. The burly 62- year-old ex-seaman and former high school teacher says he first became interested in animal rights in the early 1970’s, after a girlfriend left him with her cat: “’I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another,’” recalls Spira, who since then has always had one or two cats in his house.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.