PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is making progress in its fight against sled dog sports. After the premiere of a controversial Canadian documentary Sled Dogs in 2016, it seemed that the sled dog community will rise and start shattering the negative narrative surrounding the sled dog sports. The documentary succeeded in shaking up the scene – huge endorsements from animal rights organisations, great social network traction. But was there a different opinion? There were numerous individual opinions, but none of them could be as loud as the film, its backers and supporters.
Just last week, the Iditarod race lost its major supporter – Wells Fargo – a move, which was applauded by PETA and called as their own victory against sled dog sports. At some point, PETA is right – it is indeed a victory for them. But definitely not for sled dogs.
Sled dog sports have always been under the scrutiny of various animal rights groups. And most of their claims about animal abuse, cruelty, poor living conditions, physical stress, etc., could be easily rebuked by simply visiting at least a few of the kennels which participate in Iditarod, such as Lisbet Norris’ Anadyr Siberians, Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel, Jeff King’s Husky Homestead and numerous others, and seeing with your own eyes, that those claims are simply not true.
But this way there would be no ‘drama’ involved, therefore films like Sled Dogs choose to show the sad exceptions and misconceptions. In the age of media warfare, propaganda, disinformation and the negation of facts – this is nothing new, yet no one seem to have expected this to happen in the sled dogs’ world.
Another recent movie, The Dog Lover, tells a very probable story of an animal activist infiltrated into a kennel to shut it down by any means possible, be it illegal activities, misinformation or whatever else. And what this movie really succeeded in showing is that all organisations, especially big ones, are prone to lose their true mission when the organisation itself becomes more important than their mission.
Building the case against PETA
Everyone will agree that PETA is one of the best known, or, at least, loudest organisations in the world. But, not many understand, that judging by its operations (from shopping outlets to VISA cards) – it is actually a corporation. And a big one – it received around $42 million in donations in 2015, yet spent only about 1% of its revenue on the actual animal welfare. The Activist Facts initiative hosts quite a long list of PETA’s wrongdoings: with up to 97% kill rate and 36,000 pets killed since 1998, PETA’s headquarters in Virginia are more of a slaughterhouse than an animal shelter; PETA openly supports militant groups like the Animal Liberation Front, and the Earth Liberation Front, which the FBI lists as “domestic terrorist groups”.
PETA employs radical, loud, but effective tactics – their sole purpose is to get attention and by getting ‘famous’ they increase their influence and recognition, which in turn brings more donations, investment and profits. Some of its actions are really smart and effective, such as buying the stock of companies they work against (sorry, Canada Goose – you’re next), but such tactic of ‘corporate warfare’ is just another proof that it is not an organisation – it’s a corporation. And corporations have only a single purpose – to increase their profits.
Thus the only possible battle against such corporation is on all fronts at once – from legal actions (which are becoming more ‘trendy’ as more and more lawsuits are launched against PETA) to getting sweet revenge by approaching PETA’s sponsors with facts about its wrongdoings, from engaging in partnerships with the veterinary and animal welfare authorities to mass information campaigns about the actual wellbeing of sled dogs, and so on. But everything has to start with the will and commitment of every single individual involved in sled dog sports.
Sled dogs losing the fight
Everyone really involved in sled dog sports know, that these dogs are everything we live for. They exercise more than any other dogs in the world and thus have no obesity issues (which is considered the biggest dog killer and is at least indirectly promoted by PETA). They have the best and most nutritious diets, because dogs can not and will not run if fed poorly. In the end they probably receive more human attention and contact than most other pets. And, as mushers tend to be a little paranoid on health issues, they are usually better cared for health-wise. The word usually was used here deliberately – sadly there’s always a rotten apple in any community and people who mistreat their dogs, be it in sled dog sports or no, deserve all the sh*tstorm coming for them. But it is not a reason and not the way to treat all of sled dog owners, enthusiasts, breeders and professional mushers.
What the sled dog sports communities around the globe does not fully comprehend is that they have to be as loud, or even louder than PETA or any other animal rights group in their stance on animal rights and wellbeing. The same goes for races and other sled dog events – the regulations have to be reviewed in order to increase care requirements and reduce risks to dogs. Europe might not have such world renowned races as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, but its legendary Femundløpet, Finnmarksløpet, La Grande Odyssée and other long distance races have never received such negative attention. Why? Mostly because these races follow stricter IFSS (International Federation of Sleddog Sports) rules, especially on dogs’ wellbeing. For example, a quick release is mandatory, while the US counterparts think that it is more important to prevent dogs from running away than to keep them safe from being injured by equipment.
Conquering the divided
In the end – it is up to the mushers and the organisers of races themselves to understand, that you are an interested party in a conflict with animal rights organisations and the only way to win this conflict is to prove them wrong. This requires harsh open criticism and lifetime bans for anyone involved in animal abuse, as well as closer cooperation between kennels, veterinary authorities, race organisers and sled dog sports fans all around the globe. Sadly, the sled dog world is divided and therefore PETA is winning the fight by simply using that division. This is a media war for the hearts of the people and it can not be won individually.
Even the legendary Iditarod might not survive the conflict unless it will start investing more into the change of perception, rules and into the modernisation of its management practices – otherwise it will lose the rest of the sponsors. It was and always will be a niche sport/tradition and for it to grow and evolve, thus everything, and literally – everything, must be as transparent and at the highest possible level of quality, as humanely possible.