A Controversy at the Iditarod Involves Moose Guts

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What’s the weirdest rule in endurance sports? A few come to mind:

Regulations governing the New York City Marathon explicitly forbid runners from pooping on the pavement at the starting line. Article 7.01-G of the Ironman Triathlon rulebook prohibits nakedness in transition areas. And don’t get me started on the wackadoo bylaws enforced by pro cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste International, which govern the minutiae of oh so many aspects of bike racing, from the height of an athlete’s socks to the size and shape of his or her ugly helmet.

But in all my time covering professional outdoor competitions, I’ve never come across anything like Rule 34 in the regulations governing Alaska’s Iditarod, the Tour de France of dogsledding. The law, titled “Killing of Game Animals,” is below:

In the event that an edible big game animal, i.e., moose, caribou, buffalo, is killed in defense of life or property, the musher must gut the animal and report the incident to a race official at the next checkpoint. Following teams must help gut the animal when possible. No teams may pass until the animal has been gutted and the musher killing the animal has proceeded. Any other animal killed in defense of life or property must be reported to a race official, but need not be gutted. 

Yes, the Iditarod requires you to disembowel the big mammals that you kill along the way. Not only that—officials will scrutinize the efficacy of your job gutting the animal in question.

At the moment, there’s a brewing controversy about the Iditarod’s Rule 34—specifically, whether or not a star athlete gutted a moose the right way.

The race kicked off this past Sunday, March 3, and mushers embarked on the 1,000-mile trip from the town of Willow, near Anchorage, to Nome, near the arctic circle. On Monday, news circulated that five-time winner Dallas Seavey had a terrifying encounter with a moose shortly after leaving a checkpoint in the town of Skwentna. Attacks by moose and other large mammals are rare, but do occasionally happen in sled dog racing. In 2022, a musher named Bridgrett Watkins was trampled by a bull just days before her rookie start in the Iditarod. In 1985, Susan Butcher was attacked while leading the Iditarod—the animal killed two of her dogs as she attempted to fight it off with an axe.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Seavey said the moose attacked his team at about 1:30 A.M. on Monday morning. It became entangled in his harness and sled and injured a female dog named Faloo so badly that she eventually had to be airlifted to Anchorage. Seavey pulled out a handgun and shot the moose dead. “It fell on my sled, it was sprawled on the trail,” Seavey told an Iditarod Insider television crew. “I gutted it the best I could, but it was ugly.”

That’s where things get interesting. On Wednesday, March 6, the Iditarod announced that its panel of judges had issued Seavey a two-hour time penalty—a massive time gap in a race that’s sometimes decided by an hour or two. The reason for the sanction? Seavey did a substandard job of removing the animal’s innards. The race clarified exactly what gutting entails. “By definition, gutting: taking out the intestines and other internal organs of (a fish or other animal) before cooking it,” the race said in a public statement.

According to the investigation, Seavey spent about ten minutes at the kill site before mushing his dogs 11 miles to the next checkpoint, where he informed officials about the moose kill and also dropped off his injured dog (according to a Facebook post, Faloo is OK!). A race communique said officials eventually retrieved the moose carcass, properly processed it, and will distribute the meat as food.

Seavey’s kennel published a diplomatic statement on Facebook after the ruling: “As members of Team Dallas we are thankful for the guidelines and officials who make this race possible. Each race is riddled with its own set of challenges and part of being a great musher is being able to navigate them.”

Back to this unorthodox rule. I think most normal people can understand the need to ban runners from pooping on the asphalt, and even to prohibit triathletes from displaying their uncovered nether regions during a race. But what’s the deal with cutting open a dead animal in sled dog racing? An Iditarod employee who answered the race’s general phone line reminded me that the Rule 34 simply reflects Alaska state law. I hunted around the state’s rules and regulations and came across Statue 16.30.010, titled Wanton Waste of Big Game Animals and Wild Fowl.

It is a class A misdemeanor for a person who kills a big game animal or a species of wild fowl to fail intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence to salvage for human consumption the edible meat of the animal or fowl. 

Turns out the weirdest rule in endurance sports is an extension of a pragmatic law. A full-grown moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds, which can feed a lot of human beings. Improperly handling the intestines from one can spoil the meat. And the Iditarod employee I spoke to emphatically said that removing the entrails from an animal of that size takes much longer than ten minutes.

Whether or not the two-hour penalty keeps Seavey from attaining win number six is yet to be seen. The two-hour penalty will be added to Seavey’s mandatory 24-hour rest later in the race. On Wednesday, he passed the Idtarod’s official halfway point in Cripple, Alaska in first place, nursing a 47-minute lead on Nicolas Petit of Big Lake, Alaska. Seavey needs to gain an hour and 14 minutes between Cripple and Nome to win.