FAIRBANKS, Alaska - David Wills, vice president of investigations for the Humane Society of the United States, recently told a gathering of mushers here they must end the practice of culling sled-dog litters.
But mushers say culling is necessary to keep their dog breeds strong and to prevent weak dogs from lives of misery under the strenuous conditions of sled-dog racing. Many mushers have unwanted pups put to sleep.
Former Iditarod musher Frank Winkler of Anchorage was convicted earlier this year of misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges after shooting and bludgeoning to death 14 unwanted puppies.
The Humane Society is conducting an investigation to determine the extent of culling in Alaska, a practice it is determined to eradicate. Preliminary findings indicate the practice of culling is more widespread than first suspected.
"Most people who love animals do not understand how you can kill a healthy one that doesn't come up to the standards," Wills told a group of about 300 mushers at the International Sled Dog Symposium.
Wills joined four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, top Iditarod contender Jeff King and Ken Cheatham, a former musher and Fairbanks North Slope Borough animal investigator, at the symposium for a panel discussion about culling.
"To me, if the choice is that the dog's going to suffer for the rest of its life by being left alive, I don't think that's a very good option," Butcher said.
Cheatham said he has seen mushers bring in multitudes of dogs to be put down at the borough's animal shelter.
"If you bring a dozen animals into the shelter," Cheatham said, "I don't have a problem with that. But when it becomes two dozen, and three dozen, and five dozen, I think a change needs to be made."
His organization of 1.6 million members has threatened to pressure major sponsors into withdrawing their money from the event if the changes are not made.