It was sled dogs that kept the Inuit alive by giving them the mobility to hunt across vast expanses of the Arctic. It was sled dogs that kept stranded hunters alive by sharing with them the warmth of their bodies and fur. Sometimes, an individual sled dog gave his or her life to provide meat for starving hunters.
Sled dogs kept the Inuit culture alive during the early to middle years of the 20th century when government and churches were trying to settle them in villages. With their dogs, Inuit could continue their nomadic lifestyle, hunting far away from mission posts and government-decreed settlements. Without their dogs, and before snowmobiles, they couldn’t.
So sled dogs paid the price for those colonization policies too. According to testimony to a 2010 Commission of Inquiry, the RCMP, on government orders, “culled” thousands of dogs between the 1950s and 1980s. Have dog, will travel – don’t have dog, won’t.
Anyone living in the north before the 1940s had most contact with the southern world thanks to sled dogs and their mushers. The mail came by dog team, supplies came by dog team. Without Huskies, the north would have been pretty uninhabitable for any people, especially non-indigenous people.
Honouring Balto and all sled dogs
Dog teams prevented an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska in 1925. A disease almost eradicated in the south got a toehold with Inuit children who had no immunity to it. Teams of dogs ran in relay to get a supply of vaccination serum to Nome. The annual Iditarod race over that same harsh terrain commemorates their life-saving run. The dog who led the final team, bringing the serum into the town of Nome, was Balto. He is immortalized in a statue in New York City’s Central Park. Balto represents the hundreds of dogs, and their men, who risked themselves in order to save children. (See my Dogs in War for more on Balto and other working dogs.)
Now, we have the chance to honour another hundred sled dogs who gave their lives for us. They were sacrificed to commerce and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. The B.C. government has created a Task Force to investigate the April 2010 killing of dogs working for a dog sled tour company. The Winter Olympics meant a lot of visitors to Whistler looking for things to do. So they needed a lot of dogs. After the tourists departed, they didn’t need so many.
The only pension plan for many working animals, whether sled dogs or race horses, is a bullet in the head. I hope this inquiry looks at the conditions of working animals and their retirement and that it demands improvements in both. But I hope it does not penalize people who truly love the animals with whom they work. I believe that the man at the centre of the investigation found himself between the hard place of his dogs and the rock of commercial tourism. I hope he will not be another casualty of this horrible event. And I hope these dogs are remembered as the ones whose deaths changed our view of working animals from “means of production” to valued “workers”.
“Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence”
These words – endurance, fidelity, intelligence – are inscribed on Balto’s statue. They apply to him, the other Nome serum run dogs, all sled dogs, all dogs. We should be so lucky as to have the same said about us.
From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Feb. 6, 2011, in honour of the dogs and mushers running the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest right now. You can follow their progress with the site’s “Live Race Tracking” link. I’m cheering for Rémy Leduc and his dogs from Glenwood, New Brunswick.