ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Changes are planned for Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race following the asphyxiation death of a dog that was buried in snow by extreme winds, organizers of the 1,000-mile race said Wednesday.
Race officials said they also plan to meet with the owners of 5-year-old Dorado. The dog was found dead at a checkpoint Friday, four days after he was removed from the race because he was moving stiffly. He was kept in Unalakleet to await transportation home.
Dorado belonged to the team of Iditarod rookie Paige Drobny of Fairbanks, 38, who continued in the race with the rest of her team, finishing Thursday in 34th place.
Drobny's husband, Cody Strathe, said this week that the couple asked the Iditarod Trail Committee to develop new protocols for the care of dogs that have been dropped from the race to Nome on Alaska's wind-battered coast.
The Iditarod Trail Committee said planned changes include construction of dog shelters at two major checkpoints, and more frequent checks on the animals.
"This type of self-examination is an important part of ITC's historical commitment to the improvement of the welfare of the canine athletes that annually participate in the Race," officials said in a statement.
Race officials declined to assign blame to anyone, including a volunteer veterinarian who last checked on dogs that were tethered outside at the Unalakleet checkpoint around 3 a.m. Friday.
"ITC does not believe it or any others acted negligently in any way relating to the death of Dorado or that Dorado's death was foreseeable," the statement says.
Race officials said the severe weather prevented planes from landing, so more than 130 dropped dogs accumulated at the village.
More than two dozen race volunteers moved as many dogs as possible, placing slightly more than 100 inside an available hangar, according to organizers. The rest of the dogs, including Dorado, were moved to a more protected area considered the safest place to minimize accumulation of blowing snow.
Dorado was found dead after the next check at 8:30 a.m. Race organizers said seven other dogs also were covered with snow, and all except Dorado were in good condition.
While not optimal, organizers said, it isn't typically a condition that would cause alarm. "Sled dogs generally curl up in weather conditions such as this and are insulated by the snow," they said.
Unalakleet, 260 miles from Nome, is one of the two communities where the so-called dog boxes will be built for shelter. The village is a major hub for dogs removed from the race for various reasons, including injury, sickness or tiredness.
Another planned change is more frequent flights to transport dropped dogs more quickly from checkpoints that are not on Alaska's limited road system.
Dorado's death prompted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to send a letter to Nome District Attorney John Earthman asking for animal cruelty charges to be filed for alleged criminal negligence in the death.
State law says the animal cruelty section "does not apply to generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests or practices or rodeos or stock contests."
But Earthman said Wednesday says that clause is open to debate. He said he was reviewing the letter and no decision has been made on whether to proceed. He declined to comment on the merits of the allegation but said to convict someone of animal cruelty means the circumstances have to be much more than an accident. He noted it's not unusual in the region for dogs to be outside overnight in similar conditions.
"You have to have a gross deviation from reasonable conduct under the circumstances," he said. "I know for a fact there were plenty of dogs out in that very storm all up and down the coast of western Alaska."
The death was the first Iditarod dog death since 2009, when six dogs died. Iditarod officials said Dorado's death was "the first time in memory that an incident of this type has occurred."
PETA says more than 140 dogs have died since the Iditarod began in 1973.