Mush! Mush!

On the day of the world's longest dog sled race, spiked's intrepid Norwegian embarked upon her debut husky ride.

Helene Guldberg

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Flying over to Norway in early March, I learned that the world’s longest dog sled race, the Iditarod, was due to start the following day in Alaska. It put my own adventures on the husky sled – pictured below – into perspective.

Helene Guldberg with huskies

On the day that mushers from around the world met in Anchorage for the 1150-mile ‘last great race on Earth’, some friends and I hurtled for 15 miles across the Norwegian mountains, feeling very brave indeed.

The Iditarod is presented as a tribute to Alaska’s history. In 1925, the Iditarod Trail became the life-saving route for the epidemic-stricken town of Nome. As the race’s official website boasts, ‘Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs’ (1). Now, as ever, the husky sled race ‘pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska at her best’.

Conditions along the Iditarod Trail are indeed brutal: with temperatures dropping lower than minus 50 degrees Celsius, relentless biting winds, and the added danger of being attacked by polar bears or wolves (although the mushers do carry shotguns for that eventuality).

Our trek, on the other hand, involved a lot more melodrama than drama (and no shotguns, so far as I am aware). We certainly felt like we were pushed to the limit – our survival dependent on sheer grit and perseverance. But for our musher, Torgeir Øren (2), it was ‘all in a day’s work’. And although we hit a snowstorm when we reached the peak of the mountain, we barely felt the cold. With our layers of clothing, we looked almost as wide as we were tall. The condensation from our breath soon had our cheeks and noses covered in thin layers of ice, but before long our faces did not feel cold either – we could hardly feel them at all.

We travelled in a convoy with six Alaskan huskies each, pulling us at great speeds through the forests, up and down hills, to the open plain at the top of the mountain. At the start of the journey we would yelp with excitement every time we reached another descent. But when the musher stopped to check that we were all right, we realised that screaming was not really the done thing.

We encountered some blizzards on our three-hour trip, when we could barely see further than our own dogs and had to stop regularly for a roll call. We sheltered against our sleds, to stop us from being blown away. The dogs from the sled behind me huddled against me (for warmth, I thought), until I looked down and saw two of them pissing against my legs. At least, I thought, it would freeze before getting to my skin.

The exhilaration of facing up to the arctic conditions and the rollercoaster ride through the forest on our descent – jumping over the bumps ‘like speed-boats hitting the waves’, as one of our party described it – gave us the merest inkling of the thrill the mushers must get out of the race across Alaska. But not everybody finds husky rides so exciting.

The Iditarod also inflames passions in the breasts of animal rights campaigners, who want to see the race banned. The mushers mount an enthusiastic defence of their pastime – and having seen the huskies in action, I know which cause I would support. But both sides in this argument talk about the dogs as if they are just like us – with human desires, human motives and human emotions.

The US-based Humane Society has been trying for years to get the ‘inhumane’ race banned, due to the alleged ‘suffering’ of the dogs (3). According to this group, ‘canine Iditarod competitors face mortality rates that would be unacceptable for human competitors’ (4). Virtually every year, several dogs will die – many, according to Help Sled Dogs, of ‘sudden death syndrome’. In other words ‘the dogs are literally run to death’ (5).

Of course a similar death rate among human competitors would be unacceptable – but we are not talking about humans here. We are talking about dogs.

The winner of this year’s Iditarod, Alaskan Martin Buser, broke the speed record by crossing the finishing line within nine days of the start. In the first Iditarod in 1973 the fastest musher took over twice as long, finishing in just over 20 days. Rather than celebrate the feat of the mushers and their dogs, animal rights websites around the world claim that the ever-increasing speeds is evidence of the brutality of the race – that ‘it’s just not natural’ for dogs to have to run that fast for that long.

Of course, the hundreds of dogs that complete the Iditarod every year would not be able to do so ‘naturally’ without years of intensive training and prime diet provided by their mushers. But then, pet ownership and veterinary clinics are not ‘natural’ for animals either – although most animal lovers don’t object to these things. Why the big deal about racing dogs?

Some campaigners claim that the huskies are mistreated. Yet it is interesting that nearly all the anti-Iditarod websites use the same shock picture to make their point: a photograph of a dog being pulled along the ground while the musher sleeps in his sled (6). According to one former Iditarod contestant, Roy Monk, animal rights protesters are distorting the truth. ‘The mushers I know’, he says, ‘take far better care of their dogs than 90 percent of pet owners I know’. Given that the lives of mushers depend upon the wellbeing of their dogs, it seems unlikely that they would routinely abuse them.

Without any convincing evidence that huskies are mistreated by the mushers, the campaigners’ objections to husky racing seem to be based on little more than an intuition: that racing is hard, and the dogs do not choose to do it, so they cannot enjoy racing and therefore that they must be suffering. The mushers, on the other hand, try to counter this prejudice with the equally anthropomorphic claim that ‘the dogs run because they love it’. One newspaper describes the tension that the dogs experience before the race to be similar to that of competitors qualifying for the Olympic Games: ‘the dogs are petrified that they may not be the chosen ones.’

Both sides of this argument are projecting their own, human emotions on to the dogs. This is understandable, to a point. Seeing our dogs at the starting line, howling and barking and tugging at their leads and, once the anchors were lifted, pulling us into action before we even had time to get our bearings, one could be forgiven for thinking that they run because they ‘love it’. But the fact is that they run because they are evolutionarily adapted and trained to do so. They run because they run. They have no appreciation of what they are doing.

We would be wrong to read human experiences and human emotions into the behaviour of dogs, precisely because animals lack any understanding of their own behaviour and their own motives. As the philosopher and Darwinian theorist Daniel Dennett explains, ‘experiences’ must be the experiences of a conscious subject, which understands what is happening to it, otherwise they are not experiences at all. A dog – or any other animal for that matter – has no sense of itself. It has no idea what is happening to it at any one time, and is unable to reflect on what is happening by comparing it to what happened in the past. Humans have experiences; things just happen to animals.

Unlike the dogs, my friends and I did experience a whole range of emotions during our trek: a sense of foreboding, but excitement before we set off; exhilaration, and at times fear, but mainly delight; and, above all – despite the lack of comparison with Iditarod – a sense of achievement at the accomplishment of our great adventure.

The husky season in Roros, Norway is from 1 November to 15 May. For more information see Roros Husky Adventures (email: post@roroshusky.no)

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) See The last great race on Earth, on Iditarod.com

(2) Torgeir Øren is among the top competing long-distance mushers in Europe

(3) HSUS Cautions Moviegoers Against Husky Purchases, on the Humane Society of the United States website

(4) HSUS Cautions Moviegoers Against Husky Purchases, on the Humane Society of the United States website

(5) Sled Dog Action Coalition

(6) See, for example, the Sled Dog Action Coalition

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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