Dan Murphy: PETA Slams on Sled Dogs

PETA claims the iconic race, the Iditarod, is cruel and inhumane. ( Freeimages.com )

It may not occupy the top shelf in bars or liquor stores, but Jack Daniel’s whiskey is in the forefront of the news this week.

That’s because the well-known brand will no longer be a sponsor of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, according to a statement.

The departure by Louisville, Ky.-based parent company Brown-Forman capped a difficult year for organizers of the 1,000-mile race, an event that has long sparked controversy and which had been confronted with the loss of other sponsors, as well as an alleged “dog doping” scandal.

According to a statement by spokesman Svend Jansen, Jack Daniel’s “decided to go a different direction” by shifting its marketing efforts to a partnership with the National Basketball Association. He added that the anti-Iditarod campaign conducted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “had nothing to do with the decision” to drop its sponsorship.

“As a sponsor of the Iditarod for 15 years, we have been particularly impressed with the utmost care in which the animals are treated by the race veterinarians, the dog sled teams and everyone associated with this event,” Jansen noted in an email published by the Associated Press.

Of course, our pals at PETA were quick to claim credit for the whiskey maker’s departure — and to take their criticism of the race over the top.

As usual.

‘Countless’ canine fatalities?
“After hearing from more than 186,000 PETA members and supporters and being the target of public protests for more than a year, Jack Daniel’s will no longer sponsor the Iditarod,” PETA stated in a website post. “The company joins Guggenheim Partners, State Farm, Wells Fargo and others in ending its support for this egregiously cruel race.”

“This is a victory for all the dogs who’ve been forced to run this cruel race,” added Tricia Lebkuecher, a PETA spokesperson, in an interview with AP.

Did they mention the race is cruel?

The activist group claimed that five dogs connected with the 2017 race died and “countless others have died while chained up in the cold or been killed simply because they weren’t fast or fit enough to race.”

Really? “Countless dogs” died while chained up or because they couldn’t compete?

First of all, dogs with the breeding and physiology to pull a sled generally cost between $2,000 and $5,000 apiece. Since most teams bring 14 or 15 dogs to the Iditarod, the team alone can cost upwards of $60,000 or $70,000 plus, in addition to tens of thousands more for food, vet bills, clothing and equipment.

Is it really plausible that mushers who’ve made that kind of an investment would simply let their dogs die while “chained up in the cold” or kill them because they weren’t fast enough?

As opposed to PETA’s warped perspective on dog racing, here’s what actually goes on with the training of a sled dog capable of competing in a race such as the Iditarod.

Preparations begin a year ahead of time and by December, teams are covering between 25 and 75 miles a day, four or five times a week, according to an article on the Alpine Publications website titled, “What it Takes to Prepare for the Iditarod.”

“Mushers pair dogs carefully by size, conformation, build, gait and attitude to achieve synchrony of pace (dogs that match each other’s stride),” the article explained. “By observing the dogs’ ears, heads and tails, the musher learns to recognize when they are tired, when they are slacking off, and when they are under too much pressure.”

By January and February (the Iditarod runs in early March), mushers have typically logged several thousand miles of training runs and have usually competed in other long-distance races, as well. According to the late Susan Butcher, who won the Iditarod four times and in 1979 was the first person to scale Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali (Mount McKinley) with a dog team, “A winning dog is made, not born. It isn’t magic. It’s just work and work and work and work.”

That work, Butcher emphasized, must include “attention to the dogs’ mental and physical health, as well as careful conditioning.” As a result of their conditioning, according to the author of the book, “A Fan’s Guide to the Iditarod,” a trained sled dog “will be able to trot at 10 miles per hour, lope at 14 miles per hour, and maintain an average speed of 11 miles per hour over the nearly 1,200 miles of the Iditarod.”

As for the “countless dog deaths,” according to the Anchorage Daily News, a total of 17 dogs have died during the last 10 years of racing, with two of those deaths due to overheating during the plane ride home and another two in which dogs were hit by spectators riding snow machines. None died from being chained up in the cold or simply run to death, as PETA claimed.

Leaving aside the historical significance of the Iditarod, which commemorates the famous 1925 “Great Race of Mercy,” in which teams of sled dogs relayed life-saving diphtheria antitoxin to the remote Alaskan town of Nome — a statue of Balto, the lead dog in the team that finally reached the town, was erected the following year in New York’s Central Park — the mushers and the dog teams participating in the event take it seriously and approach it as professionals.

The dogs themselves are trained athletes that are as eager to run as human competitors are to get out on the football field or behind the wheel of a stock car, events that also result in occasional fatalities that seemingly don’t concern PETA at all.

Unless a bird or a bison serves as some team’s mascot, in which case, PETA would say, that’s an outrage that must be stopped!

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.