Denali National Park in Alaska has some very unique rangers on its staff. Its sled dogs aren’t pets, or there for entertainment. They’re actual employees of the park, using their extraordinary set of skills to assist human rangers in their duties to the park.
Denali employed sled dogs long before there were actual visitors in the park. “We have had dogs almost continuously for the past 100 years here at the park,” said Denali kennels manager David Tomeo to USA Today recently. Tomeo shared that in 1922, the first park ranger used sled dogs to mark the territory, travel between future ranger station sites, and head out into the wilderness to tell the gold miners that they could no longer harvest the sheep and caribou on the property to feed their crews.
Now, the sled dog teams are still going strong. The specially bred and trained Alaskan huskies are crucial members of the Denali National Park team. They still carry out important jobs at the park. They have also become a source of entertainment for visitors.
“It is a mixed breed. It’s not a purebred or registered with any kennel club,” said Tomeo. The dogs’ genetic diversity actually goes all the way back to the gold rush. Miners at the time brought all sorts of dog breeds to Alaska. Tomeo continued, “Some people might call them mutts, but the fact that we put so much intention into our breeding, they’re so carefully bred for health and genetics, … they’re more carefully bred than purebred dogs.”
Denali National Park Keeps Native Traditions Alive, But Some Activists Believe Its Animal Cruelty
Denali National Park takes care in their breeding program, breeding strong, healthy, confident dogs for its sled teams. But, some organizations, like PETA, believe the practice of using sled dogs is a form of animal cruelty.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘sled dog’,” writes PETA in a February feature. “Dogs used for sledding are just like the ones we share our homes with: They love to run and play, enjoy attention and affection, and have physical limits to what they can endure. But they rarely get to engage in their favorite activity—running—even though they’re used for pulling sleds.”
It’s realistic to believe that some companies that offer dog sled rides to Alaska visitors don’t treat their dogs the way they should. But, Denali National Park is using sled dogs to keep Indigenous traditions alive.
“The reason dog sledding is allowed is it was done on this landscape by Alaska Native peoples for thousands of years before this was a national park, so dog sledding is recognized as a traditional mode of travel,” said Tomeo. “So when visitors come in and say, ‘Oh wow, there’s 32 dogs here? They’re canine rangers, and they work for the government?’ they hear the story about this tradition of dog sledding on this landscape,” Tomeo continued. “And here we are, helping to preserve that cultural heritage.”