In 45 years of existence, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — the annual 1,000-mile competition in Alaska — has never experienced a stretch as rough as this.
A documentary released in the United States last year, “Sled Dogs,” accused the race of cruelty toward its canine competitors. One of the Iditarod’s major sponsors severed ties in May. The race announced a substantial budget cut in September. The following month, the sport’s biggest star, Dallas Seavey, became embroiled in the Iditarod’s first doping scandal.
Now, days before its start on Saturday, the Iditarod’s board is under pressure following an independent report commissioned by four top sponsors. The report suggested that the board’s relationships with mushers and sponsors are so strained that they threaten the race’s survival, and it proposed that six of nine board members resign due conflicts of interest with the race’s outcome. The Iditarod Official Finishers Club, a de facto mushers’ union, has since echoed those calls for resignations.
“It’s a very divided community at the moment,” said Craig Medred, an Alaska freelance journalist who has covered the Iditarod for 35 years and first published the report on his blog. “And given the outside threats they’re facing [from animal rights activists], it’s not a good place to be in.”
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The Iditarod’s troubles have come amid a broad shift in public opinion about animal-centric sports and entertainment. In recent years, SeaWorld – which was also the subject of a negative documentary, “Blackfish” – ended its killer whale shows and captive orca breeding, while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, citing changing public tastes, retired its elephants and later closed for good. Greyhound racing is practiced in only six states, while horse racing’s popularity and profits have fallen.
That cultural shift has not gone unnoticed by Iditarod officials, who have discussed what it means for dog racing, said Chas St. George, the Iditarod’s chief operations officer. In an interview, St. George acknowledged that the race needs to evolve, though he would not specify how.
“How this next generation feels, thinks emotionally about animals, that’s critical to us,” St. George said. “I guess there was a time in this race, and other events like this, where dogs were not as ‘human’ as they are today . . . We need to evolve down that path because we think it’s important that we reflect the same kinds of values that any dog owner would have when it comes to caring for their family member. Because that’s what they are.”
Animal advocates have been calling the race cruel since its launch in 1973. But the Iditarod’s recent troubles began in December 2016, when “Sled Dogs” was released in Canada.
The film alleges that many huskies that pull sleds in the race or for tourists at crowded commercial kennels are chained to a doghouse for the majority of their lives. The film also claims that the dogs often have little shade or untethered social time, and that neglect and physical abuse, as well as euthanasia for dogs that don’t perform well, are common throughout the sport.
Some Iditarod officials and mushers feared “Sled Dogs” would amplify animal activists’ long-standing criticism of the race in the same way “Blackfish,” which ran repeatedly on CNN in 2013, did for SeaWorld.
“It freaked a lot of people out up here,” Medred said. “It was the ultimate in bad public relations.”
Iditarod officials and mushers denounced the movie, and St. George called it a biased and disingenuous depiction of the sport and its kennels. Nevertheless, the race announced in December that all competitors will be required to meet the standards of a “Best Care” kennel management program to be implemented later this year. According to a statement, it will focus on issues including shelter, tethers, nutrition, socialization, euthanasia and kennel size.
Colleen O’Brien, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said her group sent “Sled Dogs” to the Iditarod’s sponsors in early 2017. Wells Fargo ended its 29-year sponsorship of the race that spring, and the Iditarod publicly blamed PETA for the loss. A Wells Fargo spokesman attributed the decision to a marketing review.
Even before Wells Fargo’s departure, the race was $49,000 short of its sponsorship goal and had depleted financial reserves. As a result, the Iditarod reduced its budget, which included shrinking its prize winnings for 2018 by approximately $250,000. St. George said the budget cuts were nothing new; similar reductions occurred in 2010.
A doping scandal, however, is new for the Iditarod. The race began drug testing dogs in 1994, and it had a clean record until the end of last year’s race, when four of Seavey’s dogs tested positive for tramadol, an opioid pain reliever. Seavey, 30, is a four-time Iditarod champion and was the youngest to win at 25.
Seavey was not punished. At the time, the Iditarod’s rules stated that the race had to prove a musher gave dogs a banned substance. The board changed the rules in October, placing the burden of proof on the mushers. Seavey withdrew from this year’s race, deciding instead to compete this month in the Finnmarksløpet, Norway’s 750-mile answer to the Iditarod.
Seavey has said he is a victim of sabotage. His attorney recently told reporters that an investigation by a Louisiana-based toxicologist found the musher’s dogs were given tramadol two to four hours after the team finished the race, not while they were on the trail, as the Iditarod contends.
Can the Iditarod ride out this barrage of controversies? It has survived turmoil before. In 1994, Timberland almost derailed the Iditarod by ending its $500,000 sponsorship deal. The company cited the Humane Society of the United States’s denouncement of the race as playing a role in the decision.
But over the past month, infighting within the mushing community has escalated the Iditarod’s problems to a new level, according to Helen Hegener, an Alaskan historian who has written 11 books about her state, including six on sled dog racing.
“There hasn’t been a precedent-setting mutiny like the one happening now,” said Hegener, citing her own conversations with several mushers. They’re at odds about how to deal with the Iditarod’s leadership and its conflicts of interest, she said. The accumulation of controversies has put a “huge ding” in the Iditarod’s reputation, Hegener said, and even dogsled racing fans in Alaska are wondering about its fate.
“I expect it to weather this storm,” Hegener said. “But there are a lot of people out there who think this might kill it.”
St. George said he’s optimistic that this is a turning point for the race, calling it an opportunity to make changes that will attract a new generation of fans. He also said several board members are likely to resign this year, which could mollify disgruntled mushers.
But Medred said that although he thinks the Iditarod can outlast this period, he is not so confident it will evolve or grow its audience. And he sees risks. Four dogs died during last year’s race, the most since 2009, and Medred said he believes “all hell would break loose” if there are multiple deaths this year.
“Everyone’s happy to believe that bad things won’t happen. But I’ll tell you, every [Iditarod] vet I know thinks bad things could happen,” Medred said. More generally, he added, “Everywhere the Iditarod turns, it has a problem.”