In this the Age of Rage, it comes as no surprise that some in Alaska are furious that the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is protesting the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race here in its homeland.
“The Last Great Race” as it is trademarked – the 1,000-mile, epic sled-dog march from Anchorage to Nome on the coast of the Bering Sea – is a Last Frontier icon for Godsake.
Challenging the Iditarod in the 49th state because some dogs might lead less than perfect lives or suffer injuries during the race is like trying to take down the Superbowl in the rest of the country because National Football League (NFL) games leave many players physically disabled and about 40 percent, according to one study, suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
If you’re an Alaskan supporter of the Iditarod, be thankful it doesn’t do to dogs what the NFL does to people. If it did, the last of the last great races would have been run long ago.
Fortunately, the Iditarod isn’t a collision competition; it is an endurance competition. And nearly all the data compiled on endurance competitors has, over the years, concluded they live longer healthier lives.
“The evidence available indicates that top-level athletes live longer than the general population and have a lower risk of two major causes of mortality, namely, cardiovascular disease and cancer,” a meta-analysis of all the studies done on humans determined.
For canines, the physiological outcome is little different. And, as in the NFL as in most other human sports, the overall outcome for the top Iditarod competitors is invariably good.
Even the coldest-hearted dog musher has been known to grow attached to that once-in-a-lifetime lead dog capable of elevating the performance of every dog in the team. If you’re lucky enough to stumble into the Tom Brady of canines, you don’t send him off to suffer in the heat of Southern California with an Outside couple in love with the idea of owning a retired Iditarod dog whose his racing days are over.
No, instead you pamper him in retirement and encourage him to father as many puppies as possible in the hope some of the fruit falls close to the tree.
As for the lesser performing dogs, who knows. The August Fund, an organization dedicated to finding new homes for sled days when their racing days are over, has placed hundreds of these animals with new owners, but others have ended up being dumped at state dog pounds or worse.
PETA’s poor choice
The dark side of Iditarod is that although it is good for most canine competitors, it is not good for all canine competitors.
PETA has a dark side, too. No matter how many dogs Iditarod mushers or wannabe Iditarod mushers might be killing, PETA is surely killing more. PETA is a hive of hypocrites.
It doesn’t matter.
No matter what enraged Idit-a-fans think, PETA hypocrisy doesn’t zero out Iditarod hypocrisy. If it were to turn out that the race that has been billing itself as “all about the dogs,” isn’t all about the dogs, there would surely be trouble.
Alaskans should actually be happy PETA is focusing its opposition to the Iditarod on the obscure issue of “tethering” instead of investing in a thorough investigation as to the fate of Iditarod dogs past and present which might reveal who knows what.
Tethering has already been studied.
“Although tethering is intuitively less acceptable, the fact that the dogs rarely pulled at their chains and the lack of major differences in behavior indicate that tethering may be an acceptable alternative housing method, but this may depend on the breed and experience of the dog. Our findings provide no evidence that tethering was any more or less detrimental to dog welfare than being housed in pens,” the scientists at Cornell University concluded.
The Cornell study also recognized the most important facts that have long been known about canines: “space, exercise, and enrichment” make them happy.
Sled dogs that get to harness up with the pack and go for a daily run with their handler are sure to be happier than Fido locked in a dog crate by an owner whose off to work for eight or 10 or 12 hours per day.
Too many Americans treat dogs today in ways that are bad for both their psychological and physical health. Too many Americans are interested solely in dogs as “companion animals” because having a companion makes them feel good. Too many Americans stuff Fido with treats to say thanks for being an always-there, always-supportive, always-unquestioning friend, and if that is slowly killing you, well, I can always get a another dog.
“Obesity is a growing major epidemic. (You’ve heard this before? Read on.) Obesity is affecting every age and every location. (‘OK,’ you may say. Keep reading.) Obesity can lead to life-altering and -threatening chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, bone and joint problems and hair coat problems. (‘Yes, yes…er, what?’),” writes veterinarian Bruce Lee in Forbes.
“Obesity is affecting nearly every population, every group, ranging from beagles to poodles to Labradors to Siamese to British Shorthairs to Terrapins. (“Wait, are we talking about people?”) Yes, there is a global human obesity epidemic, but there is also a growing pet obesity epidemic.”
More than half the dogs in America are now reported to be obese. The amount of canine suffering caused by obesity is orders of magnitude greater than the injuries sustained by working dogs pulling sleds. There are vast numbers of dogs in this country overfed and underexercised.
None of them, however, are taking part in a public spectacle.
Iditarod dogs, on the other hand, are in a spotlight because they are harnessed to sleds in front of people seeking fame, glory and, yes, money.
Anyone who thinks this isn’t going to raise questions about how the dogs are treated in this day and age is simply delusional. America long ago ceased to be an agrarian nation where children grew up around working animals, and livestock destined to become food.
Urbanization changed, and is still changing, the way animals – especially cats and dogs – are viewed. They are not simply animals anymore. They are pets, companion animals, and – yes – even “friends” and “family” complete with all the baggage the latter designations bring along.
Vegan PETA activists understand the baggage. It’s at the root of their anti-tethering message: You wouldn’t put your child on a chain; why would you do so with your dog?
You also wouldn’t cage your child, which is why PETA presents the restraint issue as tethering versus pens. Pens are friendly accommodations.
You put your child in a “playpen” not a “playprison” even if what you are doing is locking that little rascal up for his or her own safety. And when you do tether your child, it isn’t called a tether.
It has a much friendlier name: Johnny Jump-Up.
Good versus bad here is all about perceptions.
Iditarod’s future is equally about perceptions. And its future isn’t going to be determined by the don’t-eat-meat, don’t-eat-fish, graze-like-a-cow and hug-a-grizzly bear goofballs of PETA anymore than it is going to be decided by the rabid, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, all-is-wonderful Idit-a-fans.
Both of these groups are noisy lap dogs. They bark a lot, but it’s all just a cry for attention in hopes of rallying greater forces.
Along those lines, Alaskans should probably be celebrating PETA wasting money on anti-Iditarod bus signs in Anchorage. Most Alaskans will ignore those signs. Some outside might be enraged by them, and that is not good.
Because, as with so many things in this country, Iditarod’s future will be decided by the middle, by that great, unsophisticated “silent majority” as the late President Richard Nixon referred to it 1969.
Hearts and minds
Iditarod will survive as a global entity by winning over the dog-interested residents of the planet’s colder climes, or it will shrink back to being the esoteric, Alaska event it was before a young and photogenic Libby Riddles broke the race’s gender barrier.
Her 1985 victory was transformative. Three years later, the Alpirod launched in Europe. It was, before it faded, the largest sled-dog race outside of North America, and it helped spawn other distance races in Europe that continue to this day.
Its most direct descendant is the Lekkarod, which boasts a long list of partners – or what Americans would call sponsors – and the support of five ski resorts in the Alps, because no sporting event succeeds without money.
PETA understands the latter fact all too well. It’s attack on the Iditarod isn’t aimed at killing the race, a near impossibility. The Iditarod in some form will exist into the far, far future.
As five-time champ Rick Swenson observed after the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), another animal-rights group, tried to kill the event in the 1994, there will be mushers willing to race to Nome even if all they win at the end is a bag of dog food.
If the Iditarod were to announce on Friday that it is folding, there would no doubt be a group of these people organizing on Saturday to race sans the support provided by today’s Iditarod with its well-marked and packed trail, its designated food and gear drops, and its warm checkpoints with straw for the dogs.
All of those expensive-to-set-up niceties make it easier to get a dog team from Willow to Nome, but they’re not vital. People in the early days of Iditarod made it from Knik to the finish line every year without the help that is provided now.
PETA clearly can’t stop people from taking dog teams to Nome. What it might be able to do, however, is slow the flow of money that supports the Iditarod as it exists today. Sponsors invariably want something for their investment.
If you’re Anchorage Chrysler-Dodge, a long time Iditarod sponsor, it might be something as simple as the goodwill of Alaskans. If you’re Donlin Gold, struggling to build a major mine along the upper Kuskokwim River in the heart of Alaska, it could be the gratitude of Alaskans for helping save a signature sporting event.
These businesses – like all others – weigh the good and the bad of an association with Iditarod.
If you’re Donlin, do you really care if PETA joins with environmental groups already lining up against your mine? Of course not.
Having an anti-hunting, anti-trapping, anti-fishing group opposing you might even help the mine win some support from the few people living along the river in the Kuskokwim wilderness where most people still hunt, trap and fish.
The same goes for Anchorage Chrysler-Dodge. In a state where many joke that PETA should be an acronym for People Eating Tasty Animals, do you really worry that PETA (the animal right’s version) opposition to the Iditarod is going to discourage anyone from buying a Dodge truck?
Probably not. Animal-rights opposition might even encourage a few to buy the Dodge instead of a Ford, Chevy or Toyota just to push back.
Outside Alaska, however, it’s a different story. Outside the math works out differently for business.
The Iditarod is a race way off in nowhere land with increasingly less relevance in a world shifting from wilderness sports to esports in a big way. “….Esports industry (is expected) to cross the billion-dollar threshold in 2019,” according to Forbes.
Iditarod? It’s a funky little adventure in Alaska.
If your business is going to put itself in position to potentially take heat from animal right’s activists for supporting the race, what are you going to get in return?
If there is the criticism, is it going to be limited to the country’s tiny minority of animal right’s activists, or is there danger the issue could explode and gain cause bigger problems?
And if any of this happens, what is Iditarod going to do to cover your back?
Bayer drugs – which for years provided Iditarod with worming medications for dogs to minimize the risk of toxocariasis for kids in rural Alaska and antibiotics to treat dogs suffering serious illnesses during the race – dropped its sponsorship in 2013 after it came under fire from animal-rights activists and was told by a now-deceased Iditarod official that the Iditarod couldn’t help with public relations.
Toxocariasis is an infection caused by the larvae of parasitic worms that usually live in the intestines of dogs and cats. Eggs from the worms can be excreted in dog crap if dogs aren’t treated. Areas near schools in rural Alaska are often used as dog lots for the Iditarod.
Iditarod apparently didn’t feel it could come out and simply say, “Look, all Bayer is doing here is helping us protect children and dogs. How can anyone be opposed to that?”
Iditarod couldn’t say that because there are issues associated with Iditarod that the race would rather ignore. Any number of these issues could pop up at any time to cause the Iditarod problems among that vast silent majority that will determine the future.
Suffice to say, if you are a supporter of The Last Great Race – as opposed to one of those fans with blinders on – there is a lot more to worry about than the PETA signs on the sides of buses in Anchorage.
Be happy the Municipality of Anchorage took their money to help finance public transportation. Be thankful PETA decided to spend it here instead of somewhere its message may have been embraced by a welcoming crowd.
And now go worry about real problems facing Iditarod because there are more than a few.