Iditarod CEO meets with PeTA
A meeting between representatives from the Iditarod and PeTA has not been held in decades, but with the arrival of Rob Urbach on the dog mushing scene as the new CEO at the helm of the Last Great Race, he wanted to give peace a chance.
Urbach stated in an interview with the Nome Nugget last week that nothing was agreed on but that PeTA was to look at their accusations against the Iditarod and that the Iditarod in turn would be open to an objective review of the race. “Well, the plan is that they agree to look at their allegations,” said Urbach during a visit to Nome and to The Nome Nugget last week. “I basically said they were slanderous, inaccurate and inflammatory, and very far from the truth.” The Iditarod in turn would be open to suggestions of improvements. “We would look at a process of having a, I keep calling it, an objective review of kennel standards and the race,” Urbach said.
PeTA responded to a request for comment saying, “We have not agreed to review kennel standards or rules. Rather we have agreed to have a veterinarian visit the kennels with Rob to point out the inadequacies in the ways mushers confine and treat dogs—things that are painfully obvious to most people—so that he can better understand why the race as we know it must end.”
PeTA spokesman David Perle, who was not at present at the meeting, said in an email to the Nugget, “We continued to try to help Rob Urbach understand the basics concerning dogs’ needs and behavior and to counter some of the damaging misinformation that he’s apparently been fed by the mushing industry, including the ridiculous notion that there is something called ‘outdoor dogs’ or ‘sled dogs’, given that the dogs used in the Iditarod are precisely the same—biologically and emotionally—as the dogs with whom we share our homes.”
In mid-October, Urbach traveled to Los Angeles to meet with PeTA — a group claiming to be animal rights activists — to see if there is common ground to be found between the group that has regularly assailed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and mushers. The Iditarod was first run in 1973 and the event has since been held every year in March, leading dog teams over a nearly 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. PeTA claims that sled dogs are forced to run, are kept in “subzero” temperatures and in inhumane conditions. Through coordinated advertising campaigns and staged protests the group aims to deprive the Iditarod of sponsors, calls for tourism boycotts of visits to sled dog kennels and ultimately tries to end the Iditarod race.
Urbach, a former USA Triathlon executive, began working for the Iditarod Trail Committee at the end of July. He said that PeTA contacted him after ITC announced his hire. “I responded that Iditarod is not going away, but I said ‘I’m happy to talk to you about animal welfare, if you wish, if you could be objective I’m happy to have a conversation.” The meeting was then set to take place at the Los Angeles office of PeTA. Their corporate headquarters are in Norfolk, VA.
Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King happened to also be in Los Angeles, to attend the premiere of the movie “The Great Alaskan Race.”
Reached by phone on Monday, King said that he could attend the meeting only for a short time due to other commitments. He characterized the visit in the PeTA office building as tense. He set the scene by describing the urban setting that is PeTA’s backyard. Prior to entering the multi-story office building on a very busy Los Angeles street, he couldn’t find a patch of dirt for his dog to do her business. The only other dog he saw was riding in a stroller.
Upon entering the PeTA office, King observed a call center, what he described as a sterile, huge room with rows and rows of desks, where people sat to answer phones for PeTA fundraising. King was accompanied by his famous lead dog Zig, who was allowed into the building and casually walked around the conference room where the meeting took place. King said a veterinarian from overseas was present via Skype.
Also present were Tracy Reiman, PeTA executive vice president, and Lisa Lange, senior vice president of communications.
King said he gave a10-minute autobiographical introduction, talked about the cultural significance of mushing for northern cultures and Alaska and highlighted that 2019 Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser gave a moving keynote address to the Alaska Federation of Natives just last week. In the hopes that the PeTA officials, who admitted they’ve never been to Alaska or seen the Iditarod personally, would agree to see for themselves, King invited them to visit his kennel to gain a personal impression. “She asked me if my dogs are tethered and when I answered that some are, she said, “Then I know all I needed to know.’” King said.
Rob Urbach said that his idea was to see if there could be a joint research project and proposed an independent panel of veterinarians, some picked, but not on the payroll of PeTA and other animal rights organizations, and some picked by, but also not affiliated with, Iditarod. This, he hoped, would lead to a win-win situation. Asked about what this objective panel to judge kennel standards and race rules should look like, Urbach stated his vision. “I don’t know, we find 10 veterinarians that are teaching at vet schools and are publishing papers. They’re not part of Mush With Pride, they’re not part of any organization and we’d have them take a look, if there is something that we should be doing that we’re not doing or something we should consider to do and to have a more broader, more objective review,” Urbach said.
Urbach said Iditarod must change the narrative and emphasize mushers’ knowledge and exemplary dog care, nutrition and share training tips with regular pet dog owners. He said the idea of a review panel is “fluid” and nothing has been agreed upon.
“I think as any organization, Iditarod wants to be innovative and compassionate and evolving. Let’s listen,” he said.
PeTA said in a email correspondence to the Nugget that nothing much has changed from their point of view. “We continued to urge Rob to see the writing on the wall—that the public will not stand for such cruelty and that pressure will only mount to end this grueling race,” Perle, the PeTA spokesman emailed.
PeTA’s idea of a humane race?
“A new, truly humane direction, one that celebrates Alaskan culture and dogs but replaces them with willing human cross-country skiers, endurance athletes, or even snowmobilers,” Perle wrote.