‘I made the right decision,’ says Yukon musher penalized by Iditarod for sheltering dogs in storm


After being penalized on the final leg of the 1,510-kilometre Iditarod Trail sled dog race earlier this month for sheltering her dogs during a severe storm, Yukon musher Michelle Phillips said she did not regret what she had done.

She said she encountered high winds, which she estimates to be around 80 to 95 km/h, and decided to shelter her dogs in a cabin along the trail instead of leaving them outside in the inclement weather.

“It was about me and my dogs and their safety. And, you know, I made the right decision, that I would never come back and never change,” Phillips said Monday.

Four other mushers filed a complaint and she was penalized by losing one position, from 17th to 18th.

Fellow mushers Mille Porsild from Denmark and Riley Dyche from Fairbanks were also penalized for sheltering their dogs during the storm. Porsild dropped three places, from 14th to 17th, and Dyche was fined $1,000 but not downgraded in the standings.

Phillips waves to the crowd as she takes off on Fourth Street at the Iditarod’s departure ceremony in Anchorage on March 5. (Emily Mesner/Anchorage Daily News/AP)

The lower end position was $3,450 less for Porsild and $1,000 less for Phillips.

Six other mushers scratched that day.

The race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome was won on March 15 by Brent Sass, who was also hit by the storm as he neared the finish line in Nome. He said he fell off his sled and couldn’t see anything, and thought he was going to have to hunker down with his dogs and ride out the storm.

Phillips will appeal the decision

The decision to punish the mushers was made by Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, who said resting the dogs indoors was a competitive advantage over teams that dragged them to Nome, Alaska. .

“No doubt Michelle and Mille did the right thing for their dogs,” Nordman said. “But it also affected the competition for runners going forward.”

Phillips is appealing the decision.

Iditarod rules state that dogs cannot be taken inside shelters except for medical examination or treatment by race veterinarians.

However, the entry immediately after this in the Iditarod rulebook says: “There shall be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction, which causes a avoidable pain or suffering to a dog.”

“I think [the rule] needs to be revisited,” Phillips said. “I’d like to see the rules change to reflect, you know, what’s important in sled dog care.”

“Not a competitive advantage”

Phillips, competing in her 21st 1,000-mile race, said she noticed the storms were getting worse on the Iditarod.

“So you kind of have to be ready for anything. And, you know, maybe the rules, it’s time for them to change, to reflect that in order to keep people and dogs safe,” said she declared.

Phillips added that to his knowledge, no musher had been penalized before.

She said she and Porsild are experienced mushers who have seen and raced in all weathers.

Phillips, a veteran musher, arrived at the finish line of the Yukon Quest 300 in Whitehorse last month. Phillips came second in that race. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio Canada)

“It’s not like there’s a bit of wind, and we decided to put our dogs in the cabin,” Phillips said. “We spent a lot of hours in there and we lost a lot of places. So it was not a competitive advantage.”

She said one of her dogs wasn’t feeling well and ended up giving up at the next checkpoint.

“I spent a few hours there and he continued to suffer from pneumonia,” she said. “So, you know, I think spending… nine hours in bad weather wouldn’t have helped him at all.”

Finished with Iditarod

The demotion of the three mushers, which was not widely publicized by the Iditarod, immediately drew a harsh retort from the race’s biggest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“Nothing sends a clearer signal that this death race must end than the fact that the Iditarod has fined mushers as punishment for acting to prevent dog deaths,” the vice-president said Friday. PETA Executive Chairperson Tracy Reiman in a statement.

She called for cruelty charges to be brought against mushers who left their dogs outside as they went inside the shelter huts, “Cruelty is built into this deadly race, and there It’s time for this to stop.”

Phillips, seen here in 2016, said being penalized by the Iditarod this year had “really reinforced” her decision not to run the race again. (Julien Schröder/Yukon Quest)

Phillips said after the race that she would no longer race in the Iditarod.

She said she had already thought it would be her last Iditarod and with what happened, “it really solidified my decision.”

“Of course, I’m a dog musher, and I can change my mind, but, you know, right now I really don’t think I’ll be racing the Iditarod again.”

She said she hopes to compete in the Yukon Quest again and will compete in Canadian middle-distance races.

“[And we’ll] see what else is out there.”