Why are dogs valued more than humans?

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

As a purveyor and surveyor of news, from time to time I come across pairs of stories that, when added together, make about as much sense as two plus two equaling five.

Yet another example has come in the past few weeks, when a pair of stories I've been following point to a dog's life being more valuable than the life of a human being.

The first story involves the Orlando Sentinel's request to have an independent authority look at the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR legend who was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

The Sentinel says it does not want to publish the autopsy photos. The paper wants the photos because it is looking into NASCAR safety and wants an outside expert to examine the photos.

The request has caused quite a stir amongst NASCAR fans, who have piled complaint upon complaint upon the doorstep of the newspaper and public officials.

Initially, the complaints of NASCAR fans confused me. A crash had killed one of their greatest heroes. Now an independent agency wanted to use that crash to look into safety. It would follow that if the agency finds out something useful, there would be increased safety and a decreased chance of NASCAR fans having to face the death of a hero again. What's wrong with that?

What the Sentinel failed to realize is that NASCAR fans, and auto racing fans in general, had grieved and gone over the death enough. They wanted closure in the matter.

An auto racing fan is a fan that knows how to grieve the death of a hero. Ayrton Senna. Adam Petty. Kenny Irwin. Neil Bonnett. There can be no denying that death is a part of auto racing. Every fan knows this and accepts this. After the death of Earnhardt, fans went looking for another driver -- not another sport -- to follow.

I'm not saying that auto racing fans are morbid or love death anymore than I'm saying football fans get a special thrill out of seeing someone turned into a paraplegic.

To their credit, fans don't go into denial over deaths. They grieve, do things like drive across the country for a funeral, and mold an inseparable bond to those around them. Whether it's local dirt-track racing or national circuits like NASCAR, I don't think I've seen a tighter family in sports than those of auto racing.

Fans love the rumbling sounds, the power, the strategy, the thrill of seeing cars careen around tracks at speeds in excess of 180 mph at distances apart of less than a foot.

Fans, and drivers, also are aware that when the human body is performing the above activity there's always a chance death could occur. They trust officials to make the sport as safe as possible, but they also know no newspaper is going to come up with a magic solution that's foolproof.

The only way to stop deaths in auto racing is to stop racing. And people like Dale Earnhardt, who quit school in eighth grade to work on race cars, would never hear of such a thing. In the words of another American icon, Earnhardt was born to run.

Which brings me to the other news story of the "two plus two equals five" equation.

Shortly after the Earnhardt tragedy, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race began. And with the yelping of the dogs began the yelping of activists who claim the 1,100-mile race is cruel to animals.

The biggest woofing of them all came from Miami's (yes, Miami's) Margery Glickman, founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition. The coalition succeeded in getting Bayer Corp. to stop providing antibiotics and deworming medications for the Iditarod. (Gee, that oughta help the dogs, huh?)

Glickman says the fact that at least 115 dogs have died on the trail in 28 years proves cruelty, even though that's a small percentage of the field of more than 1,000 dogs that now compete each year.

"The Alaskan husky may like to run, but not for 1,150 miles in 9 to 14 days," Glickman told the Associated Press.

Would it be cruel to put 16 Labrador retrievers in harness in Anchorage and expect them to get you to Nome? Yes. Labs were developed in England in the mid-1800s by a handful of private kennels with the aim of creating the perfect gun dog, not the perfect sled dog.

But is it cruel to make Alaskan huskies run the Iditarod? No. Mushers breed the Alaskan husky to do precisely that.

As anyone who has seen a string of Alaskan huskies can attest, they're not bred for a uniform look. They're bred for incredible endurance, powerful thigh muscles and the ability to process high loads of calories and turn them into blazing fast miles on the trail.

One of the reasons Joe Redington founded the Iditarod was to ensure the continued refinement of the breed. You might say the Iditarod is the world's most prestigious dog show for the Alaskan husky. Right now Doug Swingley's breed is best in show.

I myself had doubts about the Iditarod until I visited a lot with Dean Osmar's dogs several years ago and saw the eager response of the dogs when handler Wendy Smith brought out the sled. They couldn't wait to get in a harness any more than a golden retriever can wait for the loving stroke of an owner's hand.

If Glickman wants to plead cruelty to animals, perhaps she should focus on the dogs in the lot that don't make the musher's final cut of 16.

Like Earnhardt, Alaskan huskies were born to run.

Just as in auto racing, officials do what they can to ensure the dog's safety. Each animal gets a physical before the race, which is more than any human marathon runner gets, and veterinarians check and care for the dogs at each checkpoint.

But just as in auto racing, there is the risk of death in the course of doing what Alaskan huskies were born to do.

Now here comes the part I don't get. The death of a human being led to cries not to abolish the sport, but to cries to understand the inherit risks of the sport and leave the sport alone. Meanwhile, the death of dogs leads to cries to abolish the sport.

Since when did a dog's life become more valuable than a human being's life?

Jeff Helminiak is the Clarion's sports editor. Opinions and commentary on this column can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.

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