Alaska’s Last Great Race is still a month and a half away, but the Idit-a-craziness has already begun.
Detroit Police had the mother-of-all-dog protesters in pawcuffs this week at the North American International Auto Show where animal rights activists showed up to object to Anchorage Chrysler-Dodge’s sponsorship of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and vent their pent-up anger on a junker of a soccer-mom van.
OK, the so the “dog” turned out be a woman in a dog suit, but the craziness was real enough.
“Protesters lined the road outside Cobo Center in Detroit, shouting ‘Chrysler has blood on their hands’ when a battered silver minivan pulled up,” Gus Burns reported for Michigan Live, although the MLive video of the event showing about a dozen protesters makes the use of the word “lined” look to be a stretch.
It focuses on an overweight woman in a dog suit smashing the windows of a late-model Chrysler Town & Country with a sledge while people in the background chant “Chrysler has blood on its hands; Chrysler has blood on its hands” before the police show up to put an end to the silliness.
The van is spray painted with graffiti: “CHRYSLER Sponsors Deadly Iditarod – 150+ Dead Dogs.”
One hundred fifty is a big number, but it is a small number compared to the 1,925 to 2,374 dogs killed every day in U.S. animal shelters as estimated by a 2018 study in “Animals,” a scientific journal.
The Iditarod number dates back 44 years to the first Iditarod. The death rate in the first Iditarod was extreme. It has gone down since, and the long-term average is now 3.4 dogs per year.
Statistically, veterinarians says that if they tried to keep more than 1,000 dogs – the usual number of Iditarod starters – together for two weeks, they’d expect to have a death or two.
But Iditarod has in recent times had some phenomenally good luck.
No dogs died in the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 races, and the only dog that died in 2013 was attributable to race volunteers who left it out in the cold and wind after it was dropped from musher Paige Drobny’s team so it could recover in Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast.
Unfortunately, things have not gone so well since 2014. Two dogs in the team of four-time champion Lance Mackey from Fairbanks died in 2015. Mackey was at the time struggling with his own health issues, but pushed on along the trail.
The next year a dog in the team of four-time champ Jeff King died after his team was hit from behind by a speeding snowmachine on the frozen Yukon River. Everyone agreed there was nothing King could have done to prevent that accident.
The next year, four dogs died – three on the trail and one aboard an airplane the Iditarod was using to haul dropped dogs back to Anchorage. The latter death was again attributed to race volunteers and officials who loaded the dog in the plane in such a way that it overheated during the flight.
One dog died last year. It belonged to musher Katherine Keith from Kotzebue, one of the mushers who had a dog die in her team the year before.
The five-year average death rate now stands at 1.6 dogs per year, and that string of races with zero deaths appears like it might have been an oddity. Alaskans seem willing to accept a dog death or two per year.
Explaining = losing
What the rest of America is willing to consider, let alone accept, is another matter. Americans increasingly live in a society in which everyone, and certainly every dog, is expected to live to a ripe old age, except in video games.
Given this new reality, PETA’s protesting has gained traction. Outside sponsors have abandoned the Iditarod, and the race has been forced to reduce its budget.
The Iditarod will start this year with the smallest field in 22 years. Long-time Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley is leaving; his going away party is today.
The race has an almost entirely new board of directors. Other Iditarod staff are reported to be soon on their way down the trail behind Hooley. Fund-raising, always difficult, is proving harder than ever.
And PETA is reportedly planning a bigger, better protest at the race start this year.
Iditarod has weathered attacks from animal rights activists in the past and bounced back. The same is only more true of its past financial problems.
But the world was different then if for no other reason than that it was yet to welcome social media and internet news that can spin stories in all sorts of directions. Both have allowed animal rights activists to expand their reach.
And so, once again, Iditarod – a race that has in recent years become almost all about winning – finds itself in a battle for hearts and minds. Only this time it is battling in a world where winning, at least in sports involving animals, seems to be less and less a selling point.
PETA might be the least of the race’s problems. American views on sports are shifting.
“As recently as 1991, $3.5 billion was wagered legally at 60 greyhound tracks in 19 U.S. states,” The Guardian reported last year. There are now only five states left with active greyhound tracks, according to Grey 2K – a group trying to end greyhound racing.
Forty-one states have outright banned greyhound racing. Florida, once a hotbed for greyhound racing, banned the tracks by a popular vote in November and is in the process of a phase out. And the Des Moines Register doesn’t present a very optimistic picture for the last track in Iowa in the wake of the Florida closure.
Horse racing is doing better, but not much.
“Even a Triple Crown won’t end the problems facing horse racing,” the Louisville Courier Journal headlined in June after a horse called Justify aimed for that distinction.
“…Bob Baffert’s latest thunderbolt will attempt to sweep the 3-year-old classics in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes,” wrote reporter Tim Sullivan. “And then, whether he wins or loses, horse racing’s systemic problems will again resurface, just as they did after American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015.
“The industry’s ills have so far confounded potential cures and brief bursts of mainstream interest in the sport. They include a steadily shrinking foal crop, numbers of races and total starters that have been cut roughly in half since 1990, a five-year streak of declining purses and an on-track handle that has plunged by 51 percent since 2001.”
And horse racing has legalized betting on its side. The Iditarod doesn’t.