Tough times for man’s best friend

If you have any doubts about the despicable nature of the allegations against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, you can dispel them by Googling a term like “dogfighting” and perusing the pictures and stories that pop up; any reasonably civilized human being will be disgusted.

On the other hand, as Paul Campos of Scripps Howard News Service pointed out recently, those of us who are not vegetarians might feel a little uncomfortable with the intensity of the condemnation of Vick. After all, the neatly arrayed, cellophaned slabs of red meat that we find in the supermarkets don’t come out of a machine. They’re the end product of a process that requires confinement, killing, dismemberment and, often, considerable misery.

Of course, this implicit whiff of hypocrisy in no way justifies breeding animals for fighting characteristics and then pitting them against each other for our amusement. But it does highlight some of the unacknowledged self-deception that lies just beneath the surface of our complicated relationship with animals.

For example: A few weeks ago I happened to be in Juneau, Alaska, on a trip that included a brief visit to a “Summer Camp” for Alaskan husky sled dogs, the kind that race in the annual 1,150-mile Iditarod. In a remote Alaskan valley, 120 dogs live and train for the winter races by pulling a 700-pound wagon loaded with a couple of mushers and six tourists along a snowless trail. These wiry mutts mount a deafening tumult of barking and baying at the prospect of being put in harness, but they run in complete, serious silence.

The promotional literature pictures the experience as partly educative, promising visitors that they will learn “how the health and care of the dogs is the musher’s greatest concern.” These “happy huskies” bond with their mushers and love to run. One could imagine that from “puppyhood” they dream of little else but winning the Iditarod.

But it takes a naive tourist to accept this Disneyfied version of the world of mushing at face value. The use of animals for our amusement — horseracing, dog racing, circuses, marine mammal exhibitions — nearly always has a dark underside from which we generally avert our eyes.

For example, these social animals, bred to run, spend nearly all of their time confined to a 5-foot chain to keep them near their small doghouse, food bowl, water dish and, most unnatural for a dog, their own excretions. Some veterinarians contend, quite reasonably, that chaining a dog leads to aggression and stress and, in fact, it appears that sled dogs suffer from a high rate of stomach ulcers brought on, some believe, by their living conditions. To some, 120 small identical doghouses, each with a restless howling dog chained next to it, may look like a “summer camp,” but it’s not hard to picture it as a canine concentration camp or a madhouse for dogs.

The Iditarod itself is a highly competitive extreme event, 1,150 miles over treacherous terrain, often in sub-zero blizzard conditions, often at night and with very little rest. By the nature of the race, the dogs are driven to their limits, and dog deaths and serious injuries aren’t unusual. Stories of dog abuse on the trail are rife on the Internet. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all these stories, but given what we know about the history of relations between humans and animals, they have the ring of truth.

And given what we know about intense competitions like the Iditarod, for every dog that runs, dozens — perhaps hundreds — don’t make the grade. What happens to them? We’d like to think that they wind up as a pampered pet on a lush farm somewhere in Alaska, but opponents of the Iditarod claim that it’s hard to find homes for dogs that have spent most of their lives confined to a chain. These dogs, they claim, are “culled.”

So, if Michael Vick is guilty of dogfighting, the authorities should hit him hard. But it’s worth remembering that his offenses are at the extreme, repugnant end of a scale that includes a variety of inhumane practices. We sanitize these practices by pretending that animals are willing and enthusiastic participants. Generally, they’re not.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)


  1. LurkingFromTheLeft

    Hey – I’m on my

    …seventh Sibe – coming up on her FURst Gothcha Anniversary! –

    …I have her because her previous owners agreed to surrender her because they would not confine her from running off –

    …she never goes out without a lead because I love her too much and would be devastated if anything happened to her –

    …and oh yes – she had a small issue with cats –

    …btw, had you heard about this bozo? –



  2. buckethead

    We own two huskies now and they are my fourth and fifth of the breed. These dogs were bred to run halfway across Alaska or so it seems. Once they get a sense of the run (whether pulling or not) they go crazy until it commences. Even the calmest of them still gets up and strains to go. Once you take off they are out of sight in a flash. When on a sled of course they are somewhat controlled. They do have a mind of their own and and behind a good lead dog and musher they are something to behold. Unlike dogs raised to fight they make wonderful pets. I truly hope your use of the word culled means retirement. Our last husky had a mother that was culled because she was smart enough to run with the team and not pull. My friend picked her up and and she put out some great litters. Get to know the breed.

  3. Dog Mother

    This is a great article that tells it like it is!

    Please go to the Sled Dog Action Coalition site at They have researched the Iditarod for years and everything is validated. At least 133 dogs have died in this horrible race, that we know of, and there have been numerous injuries and illnesses.

    Forcing,–yes-forcing–dogs to run 1,000 is pushing them way beyond their limits, which is just for the glory and money of the mushers. Sixteen dogs per musher start the race and only about half finish. This can be found on their own website. There are laws in most states againt “over-driving” animals, but not in Alaska. There are also laws against chaining dogs, but not in Alaska.

    The Iditarod supposedly commemorates the historic serum run, but half of that run was by train, and the rest was by musher/sled dog in relays. No dog ran over 100 miles.

  4. geyser

    Recently there have been documentaries of Man’s inhuman treatment to his Best Friend. Some of waht is shown would make even the mildest of men rabid with hate. Dogs left caged until they go insane or die. Dogs killed in a box. as many that will fit. After these dogs are dead, more dogs are put in on top of the dead to meet the same fate. THese are the Death Mills for stolen dogs that are not sold. While captive they are never fed, little if any access to water, never bathed, if one should get hurt, never seen by a vet. It is truly a horrible scene, you wish the worst to happen on the people running this operation. If they are caught, punishment is a fine that gladly is paid. The dogs still alive are put down, what is saved?
    Man can be very cold and indifferent to any animal, if they can make a dollar that is great however, looking at what they do and how they go about the daily routine, they would do it for nothing.

    Taking One Day at a Time

  5. Unicorn

    While you’re “Googling” look up “Missouri puppy mills” for more disgusting information about how ‘man’ is treating his ‘best friend.’

  6. buckethead

    to unicorn: our male was a puppy mill dog that we rescued from a very bad owner. Both of our dogs were rescued.

  7. Helen Rainier

    Golly, gee whiz — I was SHOCKED — just ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED to hear that Vick agreed to cop a plea.

    Wasn’t it just a week or so ago that he proclaimed his innocence so loudly and said that when all the facts came out his good name would be exonerated?

    God — I hate these POS who wail and gnash their teeth about how innocent they are then tuck their tails between their legs and retreat when they’ve been found out.

    If you’re innocent then stand and fight, if not, then have the integrity to admit to your guilt right off the top.

    No credibility, no integrity — nothing but self-absorbed self-interest and self-preservation.