California animal-rights activists are claiming credit for inflicting another financial blow on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – says State Farm Insurance has bowed to pressure from activists protesting that the 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome encourages the abuse of sled dogs.
“State Farm’s one-year sponsorship of the Iditarod has ended,” the organization claimed on its website. “The insurance company severed ties with the deadly race after more than 95,000 PETA supporters contacted executives to urge them to stop sponsoring the event. As thanks, PETA has sent the company a box of vegan chocolates.”
State Farm is not listed as an Iditarod sponsor on the Iditarod website, but some State Farm agents have promoted a relationship.
“State Farm is proud to be an Official Sponsor of the 2017 Iditarod!” agent Kris Yoder proclaimed on his Facebook page in February. “Join us to help us celebrate Alaska’s most storied event and to cheer on the teams as they begin the race to Nome! Be sure to stop by and see us at the State Farm tent! March 6, 11-2:30 at Pike’s Landing (in Fairbanks).”
Neither State Farm nor Iditarod officials could be reached on Saturday to confirm the PETA report, and it is unclear what the relationship was between the two organizations.
PETA and other animal-rights groups have launched an assault on Iditarod in the wake of the documentary movie “Sled Dogs.” It focuses on abuse in kennels run by sled-dog tours, but questions the difficulties dogs face in the Iditarod and suggests the race promotes abuse by encouraging the growth of sled-dog related businesses.
Sled-dog tour operations – especially those in Canada – have fought back, saying the film is defamatory. They admit there have been a few cases of dogs being mistreated, but by and large, they say, sleds dogs are healthier and live better lives than a lot of dogs kept cooped up in city apartments.
Those sentiments have been echoed in Alaska.
“No doubt how animals are kept is a source of controversy,” wrote John Schandelmeier, an outdoor columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News. “But first, we should take a look at what is considered the normal life of many house pets.
“The owner puts the dog in an airline kennel and goes to work. Some owners get to come home at lunch. They let the dog out for a few minutes then head back to work.
“The lucky dog gets a 15-minute walk on a leash after work – much like a prisoner getting his time in the exercise yard.”
Schandelmeier’s day job is as a kennel operator. He is a two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, and his wife, Zoya DeNure, is an Iditarod veteran.
Schandelmeier made his reputation in the sled-dog world, in part, by rescuing discarded dogs and turning them into first-rate, sled-dog athletes. He contends sled dogs in Alaska are treated at least as well as – or probably better – than dogs anywhere else, and the assault on the Iditarod is nothing but a fund-raising scheme.
“Sled dogs are not your average house pet,” he wrote. “In terms of care and value, they are more similar to a dairy farmer’s herd.”
He estimated there are 70,000 working sled dogs in Alaska (no one has a clue as to the real number), and calculated that only a tiny portion of those are put down every year.
“I’d guess 500 adult sled dogs a year are destroyed by their owners, and that’s just an opinionated guess,” he wrote. “If I’m off by 100 percent, it’s still just a fraction of the dogs the Minneapolis/St. Paul Humane Society shelters put down annually.
“Researching this has convinced me that the anti-sled dog coalitions are using the highly visible Iditarod as a major funding source for their operations.”
There is no doubt that at least part of the latter accusation is true. At the bottom of its “Dogsled racing” webpage, PETA features a very prominent, yellow “Donate Now” button.
And a mountain of hypocrisy surrounds the debate about dog deaths and the Iditarod. The Washington Post, citing a study out of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, reported that 780,000 dogs were killed by shelters in the U.S. in 2016.
There were five dogs death related to the Iditarod last year, and only three of those directly involved racing. There was a dog that died after over-heating on a plane flight from rural Alaska to Anchorage, and another that got loose in the city only to be struck and killed by a car – one of the most common forms of dog death in the U.S.
Interest groups, however, are seldom interested in nuances.
To most in the Iditarod community, there is nothing but good about the event. And to most in the anti-Iditarod community, there is nothing but bad about the event.
Having added State Farm to the list of sponsors it says its scared away from Iditarod, PETA is now telling its members to direct their anger at Coca-Cola.
“More than 150 dogs have been killed in the race’s history, not counting those who died during the year while kept on chains or were killed because they simply didn’t cut it, but Coca-Cola continues to sponsor the cruel race,” the Coke page says.
The claim of 150 dead dogs is misrepresentative. It is inflated by the early years of the race in the 1970s when there was little knowledge about the training and care of long-distance, racing sled dogs and little veterinary help on the trail. There are now veterinarians at every checkpoint. They monitor the condition of the dogs and their care, and the death rate is relatively low.
The 10-year average death rate is 1.8 dogs per year, and there were no deaths from 2010-2012 and in 2014. If the race had always been run with the current death rate only about 61 dogs would have died – not 150.
Veterinarians say they have been making progress on a safer race but caution that just as for humans running marathons, there is always the danger of death. The upside, they say, is that dogs that spend their lives as competitive runners live longer, healthier lives.
None of which seems to discourage animal-rights activists who don’t like the idea of dogs chained when not running or dogs competing. The Iditarod has survived attacks from these groups in the past, but the latest seems to be making greater inroads.
In a media handout, Stan Hooley, the executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee cited “manipulative misinformation that PETA and others have been using to target our sponsors at their corporate headquarters outside of Alaska” as the problem.
The organization is holding out hope Alaska businesses rally to its cause.