Iditarod Critics Reveal Rigid Intolerance and Zealotry


Craig Medred / Outdoors /Anchorage Daily News / April 11, 2004


The journey into the minds of animal-rights activists is both intriguing and saddening. What lurks there is the shiniest of intentions and the darkest of thoughts.

These are the unavoidable conclusions after a couple weeks of e-mailing with those who objected to my taking a USA Today columnist to task for his lame and misguided criticism of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

So many volunteered their support of that column that it has been impossible to find the time to respond to most of them. But I did invest some time in trying to communicate with the few who objected.

In part, this was because it's more enlightening to engage those with whom you disagree. In part, it was because of my belief that knowledge can alter opinion.

Sad to say, the conversations offered scant hope for the latter. Animal rightists, or at least those opposed to the Iditarod, appear to know that the race is wrong because of a shared core belief that the heart of man is evil.

This is not something that knowledge of the race can change.

Animal rightists cannot believe any caring individual could travel 1,000 miles with a dog team, so the Iditarod is by definition wrong.

It's not that a dog might die. It's not that there might be an evil-hearted musher in the mix. Rather, it's that only evil people would think of racing 1,000 miles by dog sled.

Suggest to someone with this mind-set that were they to spend time around the Iditarod they might find at least one musher of heart and compassion, and they dismiss the idea as impossible.

That evil exists in the world, I have no doubt. That there might be an Iditarod musher short on compassion for his canine companions, I cannot argue. But you must have a very bleak view of humankind to believe that everyone participating in sled-dog racing is an uncaring and murderous oaf.

Maybe I have been unduly influenced by growing up in the Prairie-Home-Companion-like state of Minnesota, but I've found people to be generally good.

But if your world view is founded on the premise that the heart of man is evil, it is easy to believe that nature must be man's victim. Viewed through this prism, Nature is not a set of ecosystems in which all living things exist by killing other living things, but a peaceful place of goodness and beauty where the wolf does indeed lie down with the lamb.

If you've ever wondered how someone can become obsessed with the idea that fishing is intolerably cruel, this is how: Man is evil; nature is good; and man should not tamper with nature.

Never mind that in the life cycle of the salmon, man is -- at best -- a bit player. Consider that a sockeye spawns 2,000 to 4,000 eggs. Other fish and birds kill hundreds before they even hatch. Hundreds more are killed and eaten by birds and fish after they hatch.

And even as these salmon grow to become killers themselves, surviving first by eating insects and later other fish, they will also always be prey for something larger -- seals, sea lions, whales, porpoises and, finally, when they return to their natal streams, man.

From those 2,000 to 4,000 eggs, two to five fish might return as adults. Fishermen in Alaska, where strict conservation rules govern the fisheries, might kill one to four. What is one out of 2,000 eggs? Five-hundredths of one percent.

That is the killing done by the human animal. In this case, it is so insignificant as to be almost meaningless compared against the killing done by all of nature's other animals, but this does not matter if you view man as the snake in Nature's Eden.

And if there are people who can feel outraged that humans might kill a cold-blooded, slimy species like a salmon, just think how they feel about the perceived mistreatment of a warm-blooded, face-licking species like a dog.

Animal-rightists are willing to concede that you and I must work most days for our livelihoods, but lo to anyone who might suggest a dog be expected to do likewise. Pets are somehow viewed as super-equals -- animals that should be entitled to lounge about and do nothing but please the humans who, at some point in evolution, adopted them.

This view is strangely ignorant of the natural order of things.

Most wild animals work at survival almost every waking hour of their lives. Why should dogs, or for that matter cats, be treated to the luxury of nothing but leisure? Why shouldn't Iditarod dogs work just as Iditarod mushers work?

Ask a well-meaning animal-rightist that question and the answer you will get is "because it's not the dog's choice. Because they might get injured. Because they don't need to run so far. Because it's unfair the musher gets to ride the sled. Because, because, because."

Because to some poor fool sitting in a city far removed from the world of working dogs, it just doesn't look right that the dogs wake up, put on a harness and go to work.

If there were people upset about the Iditarod because many of the dogs eat high-quality beef, lamb or turkey, I could understand. In a world with millions starving, you can make a valid argument this is an unfair use of precious protein.

If there were people upset about the Iditarod because it has allowed the development of a tiny cadre of professional athletes, I could understand. I have a certain disdain for professional athletes, too. It seems the ultimate unfairness that by an accident of birth, a handful of people should be able to earn money -- sometimes ridiculously huge amounts of money -- playing games.

If there were people upset about the Iditarod because a dog or two dies every year, I can definitely understand that. I don't want to see a single dog die, even though I accept the opinion of those veterinarians who say that the statistical reality is that if you put this many dogs together for any activity for this period of time one or two of them would die.

Any of the above I could understand as valid reasons to question the race. But not this belief that because you think something looks bad, it is bad, based on no evidence but your own belief that the heart of man is evil.

This foolish and intolerant view is unacceptable. This is the view of demagogues and true believers.

Of course, many of these animal-rightists are, in their own ways, every bit as much the true believers as any of today's extremists. The groups share more than a few intellectual bonds, including the belief that their way is the only right way.

That part is not only sad; it is also a little bit frightening.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com



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