Q&A: What Iditarod officials have to say about PETA and calls for big changes to the race

The loss of a major sponsor and a shrinking budget. Renewed attacks from PETA and the departure — at least for now — of a champion musher who is feuding with race organizers.

It's been a bumpy year for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Anchorage Daily News recently sat down with race officials, before the start of the 2018 Iditarod, for a no-holds barred conversation about accusations from animal rights activists, a call for board members to resign and new security measures along the trail.

Here are their answers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ADN: PETA plans to protest the Iditarod in Alaska this year. In a press release, the organization said, "The Iditarod's legacy is one of dog doping, cruel kennel conditions, and callous killing." What's your response to those claims?

Stuart Nelson, Iditarod chief veterinarian: I've been the chief veterinarian for 23 years and I have been perpetually attacked and criticized for everything including a zero-dog-death year, claiming that we were hiding dog deaths. You can't win with these people. They're always going to take the opposite side of the line, to use it as a method for attacking you.

Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson, Jr.. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

I have not seen the first penny from PETA dedicated toward dog care. They're not putting their money where their mouth is. The advances in dog care have occurred as a result of the passion of the people who work and live with these dogs.

As chief veterinarian, my goal is to have the perfect race, the perfect outcome and know that I've done everything I could reasonably do to learn more about the well-being of these dogs — how to better care for them and promote research from a scientific perspective. And the gains that we've made are very much a part of that process.

And so, in reality, the attacks by animal rights people, if anything, have hurt our progress rather than enhanced it because any funding opportunities that are compromised potentially could have an effect on our ability to have research — to do more, to learn more, to care better.

ADN: What are you going to do in response to the presence of PETA?

Mark Nordman, race marshal: I think we all realize that in the country we live in, people can say what they want and protest peacefully. You know, authorities have been notified. They're well aware. It's one of those things where if you truly believe in what you do, I'm not worried about PETA coming here. I think the disruptive tone is a typical thing that you see and what I call a terrorist-type organization. I think everybody is aware of it. We'll just go forward with our event in a positive way.

ADN: The film "Sled Dogs" makes the claim that sled dogs in some kennels are mistreated and killed when they are no longer useful. How pervasive do you believe sled dog abuse and culling are today among Iditarod mushers' kennels?

Chas St. George, Iditarod chief operating officer: I would say not at that level, definitely. I would say abusive — I don't want to give a percentage but it would be minute at best.

Stuart Nelson, chief veterinarian: As one of the so-called 'actors' in that film — Her total mode of operation was completely unethical. She approached me numerous times about doing the interview for that film and consistently presented herself as someone who wanted to do a positive story about sled dogs and the sport of mushing and, specifically, in response to the Whistler event which we are familiar with where there were euthanasias after the Olympics in British Columbia. So the whole context of her interview with me was 180 percent opposite of her true intent. So that was where we started.

And of course, if you do a long enough interview with anybody. They can take little pieces and parts and copy and paste and create any story they want.

But I know for a fact that many of her representations were outright lies or mistruths or terrible distortions of the truth.

So in reality there was a lot of misrepresentation and false pretenses in the very beginning and the final product continued that theme, certainly from my perspective.

So I am very skeptical, very untrusting of their organization and the movement in particular and I guess it has made me a little gun shy about the media unfortunately.

(NOTE: Fern Levitt, the Canadian filmmaker of "Sled Dogs," said she never told the Iditarod she was planning to do a positive story. "If this was really a humane sport, then that film would have shown that," she said. "I am a traditional documentary filmmaker. So I set my camera up and I filmed what was in front of me. If this was a positive activity for dogs (the film) would have reflected that.")

ADN: Setting aside the film, the question of culling — dozens of mushers run the race, thousands of dogs, how do you know there isn't that practice in some kennels?

Stuart Nelson, Iditarod chief veterinarian: So my focus is on the race — that's where I started as a trail veterinarian. I became the chief veterinarian.

So honestly my focus has been — from the time the dogs are preparing to enter the race, through the race and after we're completed.

Now I've certainly endorsed good kennel practice, the Mush with P.R.I.D.E. It's a lay organization dedicated to educating mushers and kennel personnel about best practices for kennel management. So I've endorsed that concept.

But for me to know what's happens the other 320 days a year in the kennel environment, I don't have knowledge about what everyone's doing.

I certainly can't believe, based on what I've seen on the trail, that these accusations have validity to any large degree. Nobody can guarantee that something might not happen somewhere at some time. I don't have the knowledge. I don't have the time.

But based on my interactions with mushers —I visited just about every top kennel, veteran kennel in the state, at least with road access — and it's very hard for me to think that these accusations have significant truth. Not to say they're could be some possibilities of stretching the management practices.

ADN: So Chas is saying it (culling) doesn't happen at this level. Stu, you're saying you don't believe so, but you don't know for sure?

Stuart Nelson, chief veterinarian: I can't tell you. I don't live in the kennels the rest of the year, it's not my function.

ADN: Will any of these issues lead to big changes, like  increasing mandatory rest, things that would be a big policy signal?

Mark Nordman, race marshal: We're always looking at ways to improve the race.

I've been fortunate enough to work at dog races everywhere from Argentina to Norway, all over the world.

Mark Nordman, race director/race marshal, for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The dogs love to run hard, so everyone adapts to it.

We're always looking at ways to improve the race.
Mandatory layovers, there's good and bad things about them. So it's just an ongoing process. Every year we look at it.

ADN: Do you think we'll see more mandatory rests or a different format for the race in the future or is this structure what Iditarod is and what it will be?

Stuart Nelson, chief veterinarian: There's a very strong argument that mandatory rest isn't necessarily a good thing because it forces people to sometimes make decisions to get to a certain point to rest as opposed to when the team might really benefit from it most.

So I mean the deeper you get into it and recognize really what's going on, it could be argued that mandatory rest is not in the best interest of the dogs.

That may sound like a really odd thought, but it's an interesting conversation. Where that will go? I don't know. But I know it's talked about constantly.

Mark Nordman, race marshal: A lot of races you look at, you have to take so much rest during this time period. In the Kobuk 440 — you've got X amount of hours you have to take. Up at Bethel, at the K300, you have that.

The idea with the way those rules are set up is, what would benefit the dogs? Not the mushers, not the paycheck at the finish line. It's how you're going to deal with the dogs. And every team is different.

ADN: The PETA criticism comes and goes, but mushers are always mad at someone on that board and saying someone is always trying to screw them out of being competitive. Why not have some type of iron-clad guidelines when it comes to eliminating conflict of interests on the board?

Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley (right) next to Iditarod Board president Andy Baker at a 2016 meeting. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Stan Hooley, Iditarod chief executive: I think that's probably a better question for board members — none of us are on the board, but I think the board has publicly committed to going down that path.

There was a decision by the board not to make changes before this year's race, but to assess that and make some transition at some point shortly after this year's race.

ADN: What changes might be coming down the road?

Stan Hooley, chief executive: I think there's conversations amongst board members about — Yeah we need to eliminate the conflict and let's round this board out in terms of talents and abilities, with an eye toward building an even stronger board of directors absent the conflicts.

So that's something you'll see over the next few months, just not before the race.

ADN: Musher Dallas Seavey has speculated that someone sabotaged his team. Is the ITC concerned that there is a person or people out there sabotaging teams by drugging dogs?

Mark Nordman, race marshal: I think it's a possibility. That's why we're looking at all these things. We're not in the same venue as a football game. So we're trying to improve. We're trying to put mushers at ease.

ADN: How will security change for this race?

Chas St. George, chief operating officer: Already the mushers have noticed that there are red zip ties on the food drop bags. It's sealed. If that seal is broken, you're supposed to notify someone immediately. And then, of course, we'll have security. I can't go too deep into it.

We're beta testing it right now.

Chas St. George, Chief Operations Officer for the Iditarod Trail Committee. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

We're looking at having cameras in locations that have high populations — drop dogs areas and hubs where we know there's going to be a lot of people.

One of those places is Iditarod. It gets a lot of tourists and there's a lot of teams that take their 24-hour rest there. Those are the kind of areas that we're looking at having a greater presence in terms of a visual look.

There will be a greater security presence in the Nome dog lot, including cameras.

ADN: From an outsider's perspective it feels like the race is at a crossroads. Does it feel like a crucial year in terms of having a successful Iditarod and maybe having to make some changes that keep the thing healthy moving forward?

Stan Hooley, chief executive: Yeah, I think we've really gone through some growing pains this year. We've learned a lot. In dealing with the positive drug test, we made some changes there. I think our goal as an organization is to rebuild that sense of unity and camaraderie and fun that needs to exist within the Iditarod family. And by family I mean the mushers, the volunteers, race fans, the race organization.

We all want that to happen and I think we're going to look at every opportunity to do things to bring that back into the race.

But it's fair to say that this has been a challenging year, no question about it but I think we're all confident that there's brighter days ahead.

Mark Nordman, race marshal:  Yeah, it's been a tough year for everyone involved.

But I found myself over the past two weeks getting really excited — because here we go again. We're all going to move forward and if there are issues that have to be dealt with in the spring, they'll be dealt with in the spring.

But otherwise, it's exciting. We're going up the Yukon River. Here we go again.