The Iditarod, the annual thousand-mile sled-dog race across Alaska, starts with something in between a parade, a dog show and a wilderness carnival. The streets of downtown Anchorage fill with more than a thousand yapping huskies, tied to trucks, harnessed to sleds and fitted into trucks specially outfitted to haul dozens of sled dogs around the state. Hundreds of fans snap photos, plead for autographs, or stand around waiting to be asked about their fur regalia, fashioned from the faces of lynxes, wolves and wolverines. Pelts are sold openly along side streets to spendy tourists. The mayor makes a speech. The governor is on hand. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, bundled up in a heavy fur jacket lined with white wisps of wolf hair, helps corral mushers and their dogs to the starting line.
Depending on the kind of animal lover you are, the Ceremonial Start of the world’s premier sled-dog race is either a jubilant send-off, or an utterly vulgar celebration of carnage – a moral travesty dragged over the race’s 998 miles of mountains and Arctic sea-ice for two weeks.
In the eyes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, it is most certainly the latter. They view the race, and the industry underpinning it, as categorically abusive, morally corrupt and a pointless waste of animal life. Though they’ve criticized the event for decades, their tactics are multiplying and intensifying. All of this is putting mushers, race promoters, corporate sponsors, local civic leaders and regular Alaskans on the defensive. Throughout this year’s race, from media briefings in hotel ballrooms to log-built community halls in remote locales, people wondered aloud how much longer the current state of affairs could endure. The influence of “outside radical groups,” as a short promotional film from the Iditarod alluded to, is keenly felt in Alaska’s mushing community.
For weeks leading up this year’s race, PETA had operated as an exceptionally capable PR firm, priming the press for the organization’s first-ever protests during the event. “We’re here to raise awareness about the Iditarod and to let people know the cruelty that happens behind the scenes,” says Tricia Lebkuecher, a PETA campaigner from Tennessee who was in Anchorage. “We all think animals deserve a basic modicum of respect and dignity, to have their needs met without people abusing and exploiting them.”
That dogs deserve dignity and respect is a point on which just about every musher and Iditarod super-fan agrees. The question is what constitutes a dignified, respected dog. And on that point, there’s a massive philosophical and political difference that is now coming to a head in Alaska, threatening not just the Iditarod as an event, but the livelihoods and lifestyles of the mushers who race in it.
One of the biggest ongoing disputes is over whether races like the Iditarod ask too much of the sled-dogs bred specifically to race in them.
“These dogs,” Lebkuecher says, “they’re being pushed far behind their physical limits when they are forced to run this race.”
In front of her was a macabre display: five stuffed-animal dogs dashed with fake blood, turned helplessly downward on the snowy sidewalk. Each represented a sled-dog that had died during the prior year’s Iditarod. Behind them were mock gravestones with each dog’s name, age and cause of death. And behind that were bundled-up protesters holding signs: “Iditarod: 150 dead dogs and counting.” “Stop racing dogs to death.” In the group’s political numerology, 150 is the official number of casualties to have taken place during the race’s 46 years, though this is routinely followed by the qualifier, “that have been reported.” In the further ripples of controversy are rumors and accusations of widespread culling at large kennels, the wonton slaughter of dogs who are deemed simply to be too slow.
Eventually, the PETA people disbanded, perturbed perhaps that a gentleman wearing a hat made from the face of a grizzly bear had begun passing out flyers for a fur sale at a nearby shop directly in front of their display.
“There’s nothing wrong with the use of furs,” says Richard “Ziggy” Ziegler, a honey-colored ursine shawl draped from his head to his shoulders. “I’m honoring the spirit of this animal.”
As for the Iditarod, it’s accustomed to criticism from outside groups and has weathered waves of it in the past. But with the event itself, and mushing more generally, becoming much more visible online in the last several years, the scrutiny is more intense. At a media briefing a few days before the start of this year’s race, officials were well aware the PETA protesters would be on hand.
“We welcome that,” Chas St. George, Iditarod’s Chief Operations Officer said to reporters. “I hope you have the opportunity to interview them.”
Race officials believe that they have nothing to hide, and have demonstrated a commitment to animal care that holds up under scrutiny. In their accounting, though, the same is not true for the tactics of their activist adversaries. After Wells Fargo, a major sponsor of the race, pulled its support in 2017, Iditarod officials blamed the campaign by outsiders agitators.
“There is no doubt that the decision announced earlier this week is directly related to the manipulative misinformation that PETA and others have been using to target our sponsors at their corporate headquarters outside Alaska,” wrote Iditarod Chief Executive Stan Hooley in May of that year. This year they had to lessen the race’s purse, cutting compensation to mushers by $250,000 overall. This year’s winner, 31-year-old Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, took home $50,612 for his victory. Last year’s victor got $71,250.
PETA is encouraging whistleblowers to come forward with accounts of abuse at the large kennels where sled-dogs live whenever they aren’t racing. A few such tales have trickled into news articles in Alaska, though the bombastic allegations have regularly overhyped the actual evidence, proven impossible to substantiate, or been deemed by investigators to be unfounded. From afar, PETA is prying into rumors and gossip within Alaska’s mushing community to dredge up proof of widespread abusive malfeasance that so far has proven elusive.
“There are a million ways this race could happen without dogs being run to death,” says Colleen O’Brien, a Vice President of Communications with PETA. “We’ve suggested things like using snowmobiles.”
This, in fact, has existed for over 30 years. A snowmachine (as they are singularly referred to in the 49th state) race called the Iron Dog precedes the Iditarod by a few weeks, and draws a mechanically inclined cadre of hearty masochists who burn barrels of gasoline blasting across the Alaska wilderness each February. Iron doggers are sometimes jokingly referred to as “sledheads” or, somewhat more disparagingly, “slednecks.” Former Governor Sarah Palin’s husband Todd is a repeat champion. Though it uses many of the same trails, the Iron Dog is historically, culturally and physically a completely different animal than a sled-dog race.
PETA’s claim that dogs die in the Iditarod is true. Dog deaths are so much a part of the event that each one prompts a matter-of-fact press release from the race. Investigations and necropsies are conducted to determine the cause of death in each instance, with results released to the public. It is a system that is as transparent as it is rote.
By the standards of canine mortality, 2017 was a bad year for the Iditarod. Five dogs died, many more than other recent years. The causes ranged from the understandable to the improbable. Two succumbed to physical abnormalities that were likely exacerbated by the physical exertion. One died from acute aspiration pneumonia, an infection brought on by mouth or stomach matter getting into the lungs. One overheated while in transit within an airplane and died of hyperthermia. One ran away during a walk while it was convalescing with a handler in Anchorage and was struck by a car. It’s hard to hang all the blame on race managers so much as the outcome of shuffling hundreds of animals around a vast state in planes and a protracted chain of custody.
In this year’s Iditarod, one dog, a five-year-old named Blondie, died not long after a vet noted signs of pneumonia.
When it comes to damning the Iditarod, PETA is remarkably consistent in their critical lexicon. Different spokespeople and activists deploy the same jargon-laden phrases in explaining the abuse within mushing. It’s never called racing, but “forced to race,” or “raced to death.” When enumerating the abysmal conditions dogs are kept there is invariably mention made of the chains that tether them to their boxes. They are forced to “eliminate” in their living space, a hyper-particular construction for pee and poop, one laden with the scientific-sounding sterility. Indoor dogs “share our homes,” they say. The repetitious litany comes across like talking points in a political campaign.
Much of the same language can be found in the 2016 documentary Sled Dogs by Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt, a critical examination of commercial mushing businesses and the Iditarod. The thesis is that the kind of large kennels that produce enough canine talent to compete in lucrative, high-profile races like the Iditarod are not financially viable without exploiting dogs. In Levitt’s take, “exploitation” means keeping the dogs chained to outdoor dog-houses for much of the year, harshly training them into subservient obedience and pushing them beyond their limits to win money in races.
Levitt was on hand at the Iditarod protests, and rented an auditorium at an Anchorage library for a showing of the film, attended by about a dozen people. Most of them, it is safe to say, were sympathetic to Levitt’s message. During a Q-and-A after the screening, one young woman prefaced a question by saying, “I’m vegan, like a lot of us here,” a line that amounts to heresy in just about every corner of Alaska.
Even before it was officially released in Canada, Sled Dogs made waves in Alaska in 2017 when a short preview provoked an outcry on social media. “It’s had an impact on the sled dog industry,” Levitt said of the film during an interview after her presentation in Anchorage.
She and PETA are hoping the film will be another Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that was a pivotal in pressuring SeaWorld to end its captive breeding program and phase out live orca performances. Levitt sees the campaign against sled-dogs as part of a broader moral and economic movement away from using animals for the business of human fun: Circuses, swimming with dolphins, road-side zoos. “It coincides with our growing awareness of the abuse of animals for our profit and entertainment,” she says of the movie.
Both Levitt and the film have been criticized for inaccuracies, the use of misleading footage, substantial sins of omission, and misrepresenting herself to subjects, all accusations she denies. “If the dogs were treated in a humane, loving way, the film would have reflected that,” Levitt says.
Levitt’s past work has focused on humans, and she’s relatively new to the world of animals and the debate over their rights. The authority behind her condemnation comes, she says, from having spoken with veterinary and behavioral experts about the wellness of dogs.
But who exactly is an expert when it comes to dogs? An owner who shares evenings on the couch with his toy poodle after long stints away during the work day? A veterinarian who handles Fido in a clinical setting on the occasion something’s gone wrong? A documentarian who spent months visiting a handful of kennels? What about a trainer? A breeder? A musher?
At 62, Jeff King is one of mushing’s titans, having won the Iditarod four times, along with a slew of other prominent races. In the off-season, tour buses haul visitors to his homestead near Denali Park for up-close experiences with puppies and informational lectures on husky husbandry. He’s devoted most of his life to working with sled-dogs, and he thinks that to some extent criticism from animal rights groups in the 1990s helped force a positive change in the mushing world.
“The Iditarod’s safety record for dogs, mortality, is different than it was 30 years ago,” King said in an interview ahead of this year’s race. “Now the mortality of a dog in the Iditarod is less than the licensed pet population in the municipality of Anchorage.”
King has also pushed for a rule change where any musher who suffers a dog death on his or her team should be forced to pull out of that year’s race.
Frequently, the animal rights folks characterize mushers and the Iditarod as ruthless, cartoonish villains driving their miserable, battered hounds through icy hellscapes for mere bags of gold at the race finish line in Nome. In fact, the dogs usually get priority over the mushers in just about every way. They are immediately tended to during breaks from running throughout the race. Squads of volunteer veterinarians are scattered across the race route to examine animals and assess health problems. Mushers forgo sleep, food and physical comfort to rub ointments into paws and massage sore dog shoulders in the brutal cold, with bare hands. A sprained wrist, poor appetite, or a female being in heat is enough for many mushers to withdraw their dogs from the race, known as “dropping” them. Dropped dogs are loaded into Bush planes and flown flown off the trail to Anchorage.
There’s also the persistent PETA accusation is that musher’s have duped the public into thinking sled-dogs are different from other dogs in essential ways.
“These aren’t ‘canine athletes,’ these are simply dogs,” as Fern Levitt put it.
Many mushers agree, but would flip the premise: dogs are not simple. They may not be totally happy to languish in dependence and ease. The problem might not be that mushers are asking too much of their dogs when they lash them to sleds, they say, but that casual pet owners are asking too little of their canines by doting on them like jobless adult children. In fact, according to King, the pampering and fanatical fixation with aesthetics that constitutes much of the country’s dog culture is quite at odds with an animal’s biological wellbeing.
“From bulldogs to chihuahuas, early domestication and genetic intervention by man has inadvertently contributed to common health ailments that plague purebred dogs,” King wrote in a recent op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News. “This is not the case with the Alaska sled dog, whose breeding partners are consistently selected for good health and aptitude in their natural environment, rather than being bred to create a standard appearance.”
Along the Iditarod trail in mid-March, on a frozen slough behind the small Inupiaq community of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea Coast, King reflected on mushing as he snacked on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups a few feet from his napping dog team. His race was going slow, in part because King has adopted a more laid-back approach in his dotage, less interested, he says, in winning if it means destroying himself or over-working his team to make it happen. He compared the cultivation of a fine dog team during a long-distance race to his mother’s heirloom tomatoes.
“You don’t rush it,” King said quietly, sitting on the back of his sled. “You plant it, you nurture it, you care for it, and then you monitor the fruit. And in this case the fruit is the energy and athleticism of the dogs.”
A different perspective on the happiness of animals comes from Aristotelian ethics. In a 1991, the late poet, philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne wrote an essay in Harper’s Magazine called “What’s Wrong With Animal Rights” that took an earlier iteration of the movement to task.
“Aristotle associated happiness with ethics – codes of behavior that urge us toward the sensation of getting it right, a kind of work that yields the ‘click’ of satisfaction upon solving a problem or surmounting an obstacle,” Hearne wrote. This is not unlike the sense of accomplishment mushers claim their dogs experience when at work running in a team, pushing, using the full force of their physiology toward a myopically focused goal: move forward continuously.
“I bring up this idea of happiness as a form of work because I am an animal trainer,” Hearne continued. “Work is the foundation of the happiness a trainer and an animal discover together. I bring up these words also because they cannot be found in the lexicon of the animal-rights movement.”
Hearne’s big criticism of fanatical and fundamentalist animal rights activists was that they had an irresponsibly simplistic vision of human-animal relationships. In her rendering, the paternalism of casual dog ownership degrades the animal by never asking very much of it besides being cuddly. What’s more, it wrongheadedly conflates happiness with pleasure, or the mere absence of discomfort. In its worst iterations, zealots fixated on pain, abuse and mistreatment, making misery the basis for action.
PETA held another protest of the Iditarod, this time at the finish line. Amid a bustling crowd in the gritty, far-flung town of Nome, a small knot of protestors were on hand at the 3 a.m. conclusion of the race. In a photo tweeted out by PETA’s account, three protesters are waving signs beside the race shoot.
Michelle Sinnott works as a lawyer in Anchorage for PETA’s Captive Animal Law Enforcement Division, or CALE,, and was one of the sign-holders. Their message was at odds with most of the celebrants braving the cold to see the first musher arrive.
“Fair amount of yelling, pushing, trying to make the activists feel uncomfortable being there,” Sinnot says the next day. “Which is everything we expected. You don’t expect to show up in Nome as an animal rights activist and get a warm welcome.”
The town of 3,700 is a few dozen miles below and the Arctic Circle, far off what Alaskans call the ‘road system.’ The designation relates not only to basic infrastructure, but also rural Alaska’s a high-cost economy, which resembles an archipelago of tiny islands where everything has to be flown or barged in. Nome swells during the Iditarod. Not only does the local economy get an enormous boost from the all the visitors, but much of the mythology around the Last Great Race is drawn from the 1925 serum run that used multiple dog teams to traverse a portion of the historic Iditarod Trail and stave off a diptheria epidemic. Nome’s survival, both past and present, is intertwined with dog mushing.
Asked what it felt like to be in one of the most hostile environments imaginable for activists campaigning for an end to sled-dogs racing, Sinnott took a long pause.
“It was hard to be there from the perspective of the dogs,” she says. “It was hard to see them and know the suffering that they just went through for the last nine, 10 days. Compared to that it’s easy to hold a sign and speak up for these dogs.”
The race’s finish line is under a burled lacquered log just outside the many raucous bars on Nome’s Front Street. In the dense, jostling crowd, Sinnot says people told her and the four other protestors to go home.