Sunday, November 3, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dog-Sled Racers Take Heat For Culling Practices


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Dog-mushing is on a fast track, picking up fans and financial support every year, but it has had a hard time outrunning questions about whether it treats its dogs right.

First, the Humane Society of the United States decided to show up at this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and later sent the race a list of suggested improvements.

Now the case of one Anchorage musher accused of cruelly killing a litter of puppies has cast public attention on what mushers have always dealt with in private: what to do with dogs too weak, too old or too injured to make the team.

To all of which mushers and veterinarians are saying: Whoa.

They say a few uneducated mushers are ruining the sport's good name and that questions of humane treatment and euthanasia are complicated ones that exist outside mushing as well. And they're calling for better education to clean up the sport and, especially, its image.

"My dogs receive much better care than most pet or family dogs," says five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson, who started a newsletter last summer to tell fans about himself and good dog care.

Four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher says she's actually glad for the new spotlight cast on mushing's darker corners. She says mushers have to "clean up our act" if the sport is going to survive and that a handful of bad mushers are mistreating dogs and making everybody look bad.

Butcher says she and her husband, musher Dave Monson, are interested in forming a voluntary mushing organization that would set general dog-care standards and possibly even allow for inspection.

The latest public controversy is about culling: mushers' winnowing out the dogs that don't make the team.

In September, two-time Iditarod racer Frank Winkler was charged with 14 counts of animal cruelty after a crate full of dead or dying puppies was found in the back of his pickup truck. Prosecutors say Winkler hit the puppies over the head with the blunt end of an ax.

Winkler has said in court documents that he shot some of the dogs - a more humane method, according to veterinarians - and that he was just following advice from fellow mushers. He said he couldn't afford to take the puppies to a veterinarian to be put to sleep.

"He's young in this business," says Winkler's attorney, Ben Walters. "He just did what he was told was common."

The Humane Society States says arguments like that confirm its fears about sled-dog racing.

"We believe that the culling and killing of surplus sled dogs and animals that are bred for racing is much broader and much more widespread" than the industry admits, says society Vice President David Wills in Washington, D.C. "It's the ugly side of the industry."

Top racers like Swenson and Butcher can maintain large kennels and have relatively little difficulty selling puppies to other mushers trying to build good teams. They emphasize birth control to avoid too many litters.

Many times, mushers can give less competitive dogs to other homes, either as recreational sled dogs or just pets.

But for most mushers, there will be extra dogs.

Veterinarians say mushers who can get to a veterinarian or a pound should let the professionals euthanize the animals. But veterinarians can be expensive. And in Alaska, getting to one isn't always possible.

Karen Schmidt, a musher and head veterinarian for the 1992 Iditarod, is angered by the number of dogs and cats abandoned by the public at large and believes mushers do better by their animals than many pet owners.

"Yes, there are some individuals out there, the way there are in any walk of life, that don't take the care and attention of their dogs - or their kids - that we would like to see," she says.

"But there are those of us who really care. There are people setting very high standards for dog care - lots of them."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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