Dogs plow through the snow at the Iditarod race in Anchorage.
(photo credit: CHRIS CLENNAN / STATE OF ALASKA)
The triumph of Jewish-American adventurer and author Blair Braverman to complete the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska in March inspired the Jewish press to lavish her with praise. It was later revealed that Braverman was not the first Jewish woman to complete the famous race. The honor belongs to Susan Cantor, who finished it in 1996, but that did not seem important at the time.
Jews, like any other social group, take pleasure in the success of one of their own. In the complex historical relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the West, a special place is reserved for Jewish people who accomplish feats of bravery or physical strength.
When news of Braverman’s feat broke, this reporter had no reason to examine it closely. When a new planet is discovered, a newspaper does not send a reporter to the observatory to check if the telescope is in good working order. I wrote up the story for The Jerusalem Post, based on reliable sources and published it, expecting never to think about the topic again.
Then an email from Jewish-Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt arrived. Levitt suggested that it was wrong to celebrate Braverman’s success as a Jewish achievement because using dogs to pull sleds as sport, especially in the context of the Iditarod race, is highly problematic because it entails animal abuse, which is against “our Jewish values.”
Levitt’s 2016 documentary film Sled Dogs takes place in the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of Alaska and contains interviews with mushers, veterinarians and dog breeders to make some of the following claims.
The Iditarod, as it is currently run, is harmful to dogs. The practices used to maintain kennels are not in the dogs’ best interests. It would be a good thing to change the Iditarod or even, perhaps, stop it until measures are installed to ensure dogs are well looked after.
The experts on film explain that while sled dogs were indeed bred to pull weights and seem to enjoy doing so, the Iditarod race demands that the dogs race day after day in rough conditions, a demand they compare to asking a human being to run a marathon, and then another marathon, and then another.
Dog breeders who maintain kennels often tie each dog to a pole to manage such large packs. Yet dogs are not happy to spend their entire lives tied to a chain, and seek the company of humans and other dogs to explore and play.
Tethering is, of course, not illegal. Guard dogs might be kept on a chain to prevent them from attacking people outside the space they are defending. Yet anyone would agree that to keep a dog chained at all times would be cruel.
Dogs, Dr. Paula Kislak from the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) told The Jerusalem Report, are biologically programmed to defecate outside their cave, which is why they can be housebroken. When a dog is forced to urinate and defecate where it sleeps, this causes it extreme psychological anxiety.
Another claim about the Iditarod is that it honors the historical route taken by mushers to deliver supplies across Alaska. Yet on these functioning routes, which were not for pleasure or sport, dogs were replaced at various stops and allowed to rest as fresh dogs took their place.
Historically, mushers did not ask one group of dogs to pull them all the way. In that sense, activists argue, the current race is not authentic and does not honor the traditions it means to promote.
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