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OPINION: Iditarod board needs to rethink approach to ensuring drug-free dogs

October 27th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

My friend's truck got stolen last week. The thieves stole it not in the dark of night, but during the daytime, from a fairly public spot in the small town we call home. It was recovered a few days later in Anchorage, crashed and trashed. In the discussion that ensued, there was a lot of talk about how Alaska used to be, how a decade or so ago, you could leave your keys in the ignition without worrying that anyone would take it, except maybe a friend who needed to run to the parts store and brought it back with a thank you note and $5 for gas stuck in the dash.

But Alaska has changed. We are not the small-town state that we once were. From Nome to Nanwalek, crime is changing our state from a place where you could trust just about everyone to a place where crime — often violent crime — touches so many of us.

This week, the Iditarod announced that four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's dogs had tested positive for an opioid painkiller after the 2017 race. The announcement came at the end of two weeks of botched publicity by the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors as it ducked and dodged, trying to deal with the legality of the issue of sled dog drug testing.

Dallas Seavey quickly retaliated, and in a long publicly released video, said he was withdrawing from the race under the assumption that he would be banned anyway when he spoke out against the board of directors' handling of the situation. He claimed the board had been talking with him for months before making the results public without naming Seavey. That sparked fury from the other mushers, who demanded that the musher be named. This week, the board complied, but Seavey claims that in doing so, they "threw him under the bus."

Here's the issue. Seavey says he didn't give his dogs any prohibited drugs. He says there are many ways drugs could have gotten into his dogs' systems. He has enemies on the trail, he said, who had motive to find a way to get the drug into his dogs, either through their food or by administering it at a checkpoint while he was away from them taking a mandatory rest.

It's impossible, really, to know what happened, and therein lies the pickle of this situation. The Iditarod board is revising the rules for the 2018 race, requiring mushers to keep their dogs clean. Up until now, race rules required that the musher must be proven guilty of administering the drug to his team. Now, that has been reversed and mushers have to prove their innocence.

As Seavey points out, maybe in a sport like horse racing, where you can keep an eye on the animal every minute of the day, that's a reasonable approach. But on the Iditarod trail? There are countless ways someone who wanted to could sneak some food with prohibited drugs to a team or even spike a meal that the musher themselves feeds them.

Perhaps the Iditarod board is operating under the assumption that Alaskans just don't do that sort of thing, that such deliberate crime doesn't happen here. That's not realistic, though. There are groups that adamantly oppose the Iditarod, some with a fervor that crosses the line into obsession. There are rivalries and feuds between mushers. There's a lot of money, too, which always makes the situation stickier.

We'll probably never know what really happened with Seavey's dogs, whether he administered the drug or not. But making mushers guilty until proven innocent with the burden of finding that proof on the musher's shoulders is crossways to how the American judicial system is run. Protecting you and your dogs from possible sabotage would likely take a level of security and paranoia that would erode the Iditarod from the ground up.

Maybe you believe Seavey and maybe you don't. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that the race grow with the changing nature of Alaska, one where crime is no longer an anomaly, but something, sadly, that we all have to expect. If the Iditarod wants to crack down on mushers doping their dogs, they need to take on the responsibility of putting cameras at all the checkpoints and protecting food drops as well as any other measures needed to keep these dogs safe. That's a high bar to set, but simply moving the bar over into the mushers' court isn't the answer.

The Iditarod board needs to reverse this ruling. And while they are at it, they should dial back the rule that bans mushers from speaking their mind about how the race is being run. That simply prohibits healthy debate, which only makes matters worse in situations like these when open discussion and debate is needed.


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