The asphyxiation death of a dog removed from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has outraged animal rights activists who have long criticized the 1,000-mile race as cruel.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is urging Alaska prosecutors to file cruelty charges for those responsible for the death of 5-year-old Dorado, who died last week after being buried by drifting snow at a checkpoint during severe wind. Dorado was removed from the race March 11 because he was moving stiffly, according to a blog posted on the website for the Squid Acres Kennel run by the dog's owners.
"It's a horrifying death, and we feel it was totally preventable," PETA cruelty caseworker Kristin Simon said Tuesday.
Dorado was found dead Friday morning in Unalakleet, 260 miles from the finish line in Nome on Alaska's wind-scrubbed western coast. Dorado and other dropped dogs were last checked about 3 a.m. that day. The death was discovered as many as five hours later, according to race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon.
Dorado belonged to the team of Iditarod rookie Paige Drobny of Fairbanks, who owns Squid Acres Kennel with her husband, Cody Strathe. After he was removed from the race, Dorado was being held in a lot set up to care for dogs left behind because of illness, injury, or tiredness. Iditarod officials have said Dorado was otherwise healthy.
McLarnon referred further questions to race officials, who did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday.
Drobny, 38, continued in the race with the rest of her team, finishing Thursday in 34th place.
Strathe said the couple has asked race organizers to implement new protocols on care for dogs dropped from the race. Strathe also is a musher but did not run the Iditarod. He said changes sought from the Iditarod Trail Committee include boosting the number of helpers at checkpoints to check on dogs more often, providing adequate shelter and increasing the number of flights to get the dogs out more quickly.
"We thought that our dog was being cared for," he said. "That's the race organization's responsibility. We, as mushers, trusted them."
Race officials have said the weather delayed efforts to transport dropped dogs sooner.
There were at least 135 dogs in the lot that night, and a race official told the Anchorage Daily News that locals, volunteers and veterinarians worked on protecting the animals from blowing snow and wind.
Most of the dogs stayed the night inside two airport buildings, while Dorado was among three dozen dogs held in a spot behind the buildings that handlers reportedly believed would protect them from the wind.
Nome District Attorney John Earthman said no decision has been made on whether to pursue charges as PETA wants.
"I believe I recognize their issue, which I believe is that somebody committed criminal negligence by leaving this dog out in the winter weather in western Alaska," he said. "Whether someone can be successfully prosecuted for that, you know, I couldn't tell you. That remains to be seen."
Every year, the Iditarod is criticized by animal advocates as being an event that can be deadly for dogs and that the animals are forced to run. PETA says at least 142 dogs have died since the Iditarod began in 1973.
Mushers and race supporters say the race celebrates world-class canine athletes that have been conditioned through diet and training to perform at the highest levels of health after decades of research and advancements in animal care.