It’s been awhile since I put up a Chained Dog Shero post, mostly because my life has become all animal books, all the time. (Yes, it’s different than what I used to do, but it still helps animals, and I love it!) But by gum, today I was just compelled to after reading about this wonderful woman.
Ashley Keith’s been there, done that in the dog-sledding world—she knows what she’s talking about. And I’m so impressed and grateful to her for taking a stand against those continuing to mistreat the dogs in their care.
I want to help spread the word, and I hope you will too by sharing the blog and checking out her website at humanemushing.com. Thank you, Ashley, for speaking out for those who have no voice.
Ashley Keith, founder of Humane Mushing
For those who want to know a little bit about me:
I’ve been dogsledding since January of 1998. I ran dogs recreationally in Central New York until 2001, when I took a sabbatical my junior year of high school and traveled to Cambridge, Minnesota to work for 2000 Iditarod veteran Blake Freking and 1998 Junior Iditarod veteran Jennifer Deye. I lived and worked there until April of 2002, caring for and training approximately 75 Siberian Huskies. During my tenure at this kennel, I attended and participated in multiple sprint and mid-distance sled dog races throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I also toured and trained at numerous competition kennels – including that of 4-time John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon Champion and (then) 2-time Iditarod veteran, Jamie Nelson in Togo, Minnesota.
During these eight months I was exposed to many of the realities of industrial mushing. I witnessed dogs fracture their canine teeth, because they chewed on their chains out of boredom and frustration from being tethered, and their teeth became stuck in the chain. I witnessed dogs become entangled and nearly suffocate because their chains stretched from the constant jerking of the dogs running their perimeter circle, and they were able to become intertwined with a neighboring dog. I was forced to accompany a perfectly healthy sled dog’s visit to the veterinarian for euthanasia, so that I would understand the importance of maintaining a sizeable, competitive kennel. This dog, named Bullet, was euthanized simply because he was too slow in harness, and no one was interested in buying him. We took his body back to the kennel and put it in the freezer, so that his pelt could later be used to make garments.
The following two years after I returned east, I was asked to tour numerous purebred Siberian Husky kennels and share the knowledge I had learned while at the top purebred kennel in the Midwest. I traveled throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York visiting individual kennels, and attending sled dog trade fairs and races. As in the Midwest, I witnessed extremely social dogs forced to live a solitary, chained existence for the majority of their lives in a variety of subpar housing conditions.
In November of 2003, I traveled to Alaska to work for one of the sport’s most prominent families – the Seaveys. When I arrived at their Sterling kennel location (there are numerous kennel locations, each serving a different purpose), I was horrified to find hundreds of dogs chained in the worst conditions I had yet to experience. I couldn’t even see the end of the rows of dogs over the field that the dog lot was located in – they just disappeared into the horizon. Wooden dog houses were broken and in disrepair, with exposed screws and rotting wood. Many houses had no lip to keep bedding in and help retain body heat – not that there was any bedding. I was informed that not providing bedding was a cost-cutting measure, and one that would harden the dogs for the weather conditions they would face in the Iditarod. Many houses had holes which allowed in wind, rain, and snow – leaving the dogs brutally exposed to the elements year-round. Plastic barrel houses were worn away from dogs chewing on them, though they were slightly sturdier than the wooden houses which quickly succumbed to the damp weather. Many dogs were underweight, and a particular dog with no name was in noticeably worse shape than the others. He wasn’t eating or drinking, his stomach was tucked up, and his abdominal area was sensitive to touch. I urged my employers to get the dog veterinary care for days. Finally, Mitch put the dog in his truck and drove into the woods, returning without the dog.
This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. No longer willing to morally support industrial mushing due to the constant barrage of horrors I had witnessed throughout the years, I returned to Central New York and dedicated my time to sled dog rescue and humane mushing education. There were (and are still today) too many accepted cruelties within the industry. The mushing scene in North America is far different from that of Europe, where chaining is denounced by the largest purebred sled dog organization in the world – the World Sleddog Association. Sled dogs in the United States and Canada are exempt from most animal cruelty statutes, and viewed as livestock in many municipalities.
The Iditarod is the Super Bowl of sled dog racing, and has no ties to the original life-saving Serum Run. The race was in fact patterned after the All Alaska Sweepstakes, and named in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala (who happened to participate in the Serum Run). The race has become so industrialized that mushers factory farm and warehouse sled dogs in order to consistently field competitive teams. The Seavey family, alone, has grossed $1,300,222.32 in Iditarod purse winnings over the years. This is not a humane event, nor is it in any way traditional.
Sled dogs have been present in North America since before European settlement, where they served in a necessary role as working draft animals – used to transport people, supplies, and even mail. Where sled dogs were once a part of daily life in order for native cultures to function and survive, the Iditarod has transformed them into the short-coated, Maserati versions of traditional village dogs. Iditarod dogs are often unable to even run without wearing coats and booties, and are required to be constantly treated with gastric ulcer medication to prevent them from forming life-threatening stomach ulcers due to the grueling, stressful nature of the race. This race commemorates nothing and honors no one, and I will continue to speak for the dogs who are used and discarded by the industry to keep it afloat.