The Associated Press
MIAMI - With the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race under way in Alaska, Margery Glickman is pulling for the dogs, not the mushers.
The Miami woman is the founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition, devoted to educating the public about what she says is the abuse of the animals.
The 53-year-old former first-grade teacher formed the group after a visit to Alaska, where, she said, she and her sons saw huskies chained to dog houses in unshaded dirt lots, living in their own urine and feces.
Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley calls the coalition's allegations "absolutely ludicrous." He said Glickman is uninformed, hasn't been back to Alaska since her trip two years ago and has never even seen a sled dog race.
"I would like for reasonably minded people that have any questions about this race and the care and love that these animals get to take a trip to Alaska to see for themselves," Hooley said.
Glickman countered: "The facts about the race, the injuries, the deaths, speak for themselves. The Alaskan husky may like to run, but not for 1,150 miles in 9 to 14 days."
The coalition has already had an effect since it began in 1999. Starting next year, Bayer Corp. will not provide antibiotics and deworming medication for the race. Bayer spokesman Greg Coffey said the company received complaint letters prompted by the coalition and pulled its medications to remove the misimpression that it was a sponsor of the race.
In the Iditarod, a team of up to 16 dogs and their musher race over snow, ice and rough terrain from Anchorage to Nome, about the distance from Orlando to New York. The record is 9 days and 58 minutes, less than half the time it took to complete the race when it began in 1973.
This year's race, which started March 3, has a record purse of $550,000 to be split among the first 30 finishers.
The coalition, whose members include the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, contends the push for increased speeds puts the animals' lives at risk.
At least 115 dogs have died on the trail in 28 years, according to Iditarod figures. The causes of death include exhaustion, liver injury and strangulation in tow lines.
Hooley said the death rate is substantially lower than that of the rest of the pet population and is a small percentage out of a field of more than 1,000 dogs competing each year. "That represents two-tenths of 1 percent of the dogs that have participated in this race," he said.
According to race officials, one dog died in last year's race from gastric ulcers. One dog died in 1999 and in 1998, and five died in 1997.
Before the race, each dog is given a physical that includes blood work and an electrocardiogram. More than 30 veterinarians are stationed at race checkpoints to treat injuries and perform routine evaluations.
In addition, the race made several changes in 1992 after criticism from the Humane Society, including requiring straw for the dogs to sleep on and restricting competition to breeds suitable for Arctic travel.
"We're doing everything we can to assure that this is a safe, competitive event," said Stuart Nelson Jr., the race's chief veterinarian.
In January, Glickman, whose coalition operates mostly over the Internet, sent 30 Iditarod Dead Dog Awards to the chief executives of sponsoring companies. She is following this year's race from Miami.
Earlier this week, a musher dropped out of the Iditarod after his dog team was hit by a speeding snowmobiler. The dogs were bruised and banged up but their injuries were not life-threatening, a veterinarian reported.
While Glickman said she would like to shut down the Iditarod, she does not expect to succeed, given its importance to Alaska's tourism industry. The event pumped about $12 million into Anchorage's economy last year, according to the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Kathy Dunn, marketing director for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, noted that the race commemorates a 1925 lifesaving delivery of serum to diptheria-stricken Nome by sled dogs.
"It's something that has deeper meaning within the state," Dunn said. "It's not just a spectator event."