03/02/2008 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mush! The 2008 Iditarod Begins

I'm in Anchorage, Alaska right now where I watched the ceremonial start of the 2008 Iditarod yesterday. This year, 96 teams will make the 1150 mile trip from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nome, on the Bering Sea, who will officially depart this afternoon. (I'm going to Nome next, but will be there well ahead of the first mushers.)

Animal lovers -- and I'm one -- are often concerned over the condition of the dogs that make the trip happen. I walked around downtown Anchorage during the Ceremonial Start yesterday, and got up close to many of the 96 teams. A team averages 16 dogs, so there were well over 1,000 dogs hanging around on the snow that was trucked in to cover the street for the event. The brittle air was filled with dog sound from sea-gull like keening to sharp barking to complaining that sounded like old wheezing women, but the dogs -- well, the dogs were excited.

They seemed unhappy only when they were eager to go and couldn't go yet -- and each dog coped with that in different ways. A few snuggled with their handlers, others jumped up and down in the air like there were springs in their booties, others sat and looked philosophical. Either way, it was completely obvious that these animals were well cared for. See some photos of the day here.

Indeed, the Anchorage Daily News reported that this year was free of animal rights protests. As Craig Medred reports:

"The Humane Society of the United States, which has led those protests, is not endorsing the race but is not actively campaigning against it. The organization is focused on other programs, said spokesman John Balzar, who once served as a press liaison for the Quest."Three to four million dogs are euthanized in America in shelters every year for not having a home; 300 million farm animals are kept in cruel confinement and 75 million animals are killed for their fur alone," Balzar said. "The Iditarod and competitive dog mushing are not one of our programs." Iditarod officials, mushers and other supporters say huge strides have been made in dog care. And mushers say critics are just wrong when they say the dogs are forced to run."No way we can make a dog go a thousand miles by being mean to it," [defending Iditarod champion Lance] Mackey said."

Based on what I observed, that seems about right to me.