ANCHORAGE - As the last dog teams trickle across the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, organizers are working to quell the bad publicity generated by the disqualification of a top musher for dog abuse.
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Ramy Brooks admitted to spanking each of his 10 dogs with a trail marker after two refused to get up and continue running outside the checkpoint of Golovin on the Bering Sea coast.
The race hit a high note when this year's highly likable champ, Lance Mackey, crossed the finish line, sealing unprecedented back-to-back wins of the 1,100-mile Iditarod and 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
But Brooks' disqualification is a setback to the Iditarod and to Brooks, who could face tighter scrutiny from sponsors whose financial backing is integral to covering the steep costs of running a top dog kennel.
To make matters worse for Brooks, one of his dogs died between White Mountain and Safety, the last checkpoint before Nome. Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said that so far, the necropsy on Kate, a 3-year-old female, indicates that the two incidents were not related. Further tests were being conducted.
On Monday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va., asked Alaska State Troopers to conduct a criminal investigation.
"It's pretty appalling and I would hope the citizens of the state of Alaska would demand that an investigation occur," said Lisa Wathne, a Seattle-based spokeswoman for PETA. "If there was a violation of the law, Ramy Brooks should be charged."
Alaska State Troopers said on Monday that they have no plans to investigate or press charges against Brooks.
"We did not feel this incident warranted investigation. We're not condoning it, we're not saying it was good, bad or indifferent. It doesn't warrant an investigation. By our statutes, it doesn't apply," said Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the troopers.
Numerous e-mails have been sent to race headquarters from all over the world voicing a broad spectrum of opinions, from support to condemnation of the race, according to Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George.
"We have to move forward. What we need to do now is make sure we strive for the highest possible standards of animal care," St. George said.
St. George said a majority of the responses have come "from people who understand that there are rules in place" to protect the dogs.
"There are groups out there who focus on saying we should not have the race, but the overwhelming majority really value this race and the mushing lifestyle," St. George said.
Sara Vanderwood, president of Mushing USA, called Brooks' disqualification "a very appropriate response."
"I think in some circles it is going to be detrimental to the sport, or certainly has the possibility to be," Vanderwood said from her home in Oxford, Maine. "Anything like this has potential to make people look badly on our sport."
The 35-year-old Iditarod has the support of Gov. Sarah Palin, as well as most other Alaskans.
"The health and safety of the Iditarod dogs has always been the number one concern on the trail and (the disqualification) proves that is still the case," said her spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow.
Arleigh Reynolds, a veterinarian commissioned by Brooks to check the dogs Saturday, several days after Brooks arrived at the finish in Nome, said the dogs were in very good physical condition with shiny coats and no evidence of bruising. Reynolds, of North Pole, sent the results of his examination to Iditarod officials over the weekend. Race vets had also found that Brooks' dogs were generally in good health, Nordman said.
Brooks, who lives in Healy, could not be reached for comment and his Web site, www.ramybrooks.com was out of commission Monday. His primary sponsor, Cellular One, based in Oklahoma City, did not immediately return calls.
St. George said Iditarod sponsors like Wells Fargo, Chevron Corp. and Cabela's are still behind the race. Each of those companies did not immediately respond to messages left by The Associated Press on Monday.
"This is not only unfortunate, it's very, very rare. And I know that our sponsors know that," St. George said.