ANCHORAGE (Alaska) - An animal rights group will join the director of a controversial documentary on sled dog racing in protesting this year’s Iditarod.
Activists from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will join local activists in a protest during the ceremonial start, the restart in Willow and the finish in Nome. A mock funeral will be organized that will see five headstones engraved with the name, age, and cause of death of each dog who died during the 2017 Iditarod, according to a press release from PETA.
John Di Leonardo, PETA’s assistant manager for animals in entertainment, opposes the running of Iditarod citing the 150 dogs that have died since the race began in 1973. “[They] will continue to drop dead as long as Iditarod continues to force them to run at breakneck speed just so their owners can win prizes.”
Iditarod’s race director and race marshal, Mark Nordman, says PETA’s presence is of “some concern” but race officials are “confident in how the race is run.” Nordman describes that this the state sport, Iditarod is the Super Bowl and “this is a big deal for the state of Alaska.”
Stan Hooley, the Iditarod CEO and President, echoed that sentiment and questioned how prevalent PETA’s philosophies are across the state. “We're pretty confident there aren't many Alaskans aligned with their way of thinking.”
Meanwhile, Fern Levitt, the Canadian director of ‘Sled Dogs,’ a documentary critical of the Iditarod and commercial mushing, will screen her film for the first time in Alaska right after the ceremonial start at the Wilda Marston Theatre.
Levitt spent months investigating the sport after 100 sled dogs were culled in Whistler in 2011. “I needed to find out if this is an anomaly or whether this is part of the whole sled dog industry,” said Levitt about making her film.
‘Sled Dogs’ also looks at Krabloonik, another maligned sled dog operation in Colorado, that saw a change of ownership after charges of animal cruelty. In general, Levitt has a dim view of commercial sled dog operations and the practice of tethering dogs. “Dogs in many commercial dog sled companies are continually tethered to a chain and euthanized when they’re deemed no longer useful.”
Levitt says Iditarod mushers have convinced the world that sled dogs are different to pet dogs in their hardiness and tolerance for pain. She says they are actually similar to pets in that “they need to play and play with other dogs” and being chained outside prevents these normal interactions.
For the Iditarod itself, her perspective is similarly grim, she calls big kennels “money factories” and asks why dogs get sick and die while running the race if the musher’s focus is on dog care.
Levitt was granted access by the Iditarod Trail Committee to cover the 2016 race, focusing on rookie Patrick Beall’s preparations and journey to Nome. Beall took to social media and appeared in a video produced by the ITC after a trailer of the film was released, blasting his depiction in the film and calling Levitt a liar.
Hooley also questions the accuracy of the documentary: “We know enough about how various scenes were captured to know there were some pretty unethical ways to make the dogs look frightened and scared.”
For PETA, the film has been a useful tool when convincing sponsors to drop their support of the race. In the last year, Iditarod has lost Wells Fargo, State Farm and Guggenheim Partners as sponsors and picked up Northrim Bank. Di Leonardo says the impact of PETA’s campaign has been a drop of $250,000 for this year's race purse.
Levitt describes though that she is not anti-mushing, the end of her documentary shows a former musher at Krabloonlik who maintains a recreational team with dogs that are seemingly part of his family.
For Iditarod, Nordman says he has only seen “improvements across the board” and the ITC has launched a kennel management program that will be ready for the 2019 race, standardizing care for all mushers who enter future Iditarods.
For PETA, the only solution is taking the dogs out dog mushing. Di Leonardo says alternative epic trips across the Alaskan wilderness could be mechanical or human-powered – like Iron Dog or Iditasport -- but animals should not be involved. “If a musher wants to prove he or she can endure they should do it themselves and leave the dogs out of it,” said Di Leonardo.