DAYTON, Ohio, March 6 -- The 23rd annual Trail Sled Dog Race -- known as the Iditarod -- was in its third day Monday, but its partial sponsorship by an Ohio dog food company was nearing its end amid controversy over allegedly cruel treatment of participating dogs. The 10-day, 1,161-mile race across Alaska has been partially sponsored by the Iams Co. for eight years. But this year spectators don't even know Iams, a nationally-known pet food manufacturer headquartered in Dayton, is a sponsor. The company has asked promoters not to display its logo, or mention the Iams brand names. In addition to 1995 being Iams' last year of sponsorship, the Timberland Co., the race's primary sponsor, has also pulled out, and ABC Sports decided not to televise the event. The controversy centers on the deaths of six dogs during the competition in 1993 and last year's heart attack death of a dog owned by four-time champion musher Susan Butcher. After last year's race, Iams officials said they received hundreds of 'pro and con' letters from dog owners. Iams spokesman Brian Brown told United Press International the firm is contractually bound -- at a 1995 cost of $175,000 -- to remain as a sponsor this year. 'In the beginning we entered into (the contract) to learn about the nutritional needs of dogs...and we worked with the Humane Society of the United States to address the safety issues of Iditarod,' Brown said. But even the 1.8 million-member Humane Society now officially opposes the race and has charged the competition's organizers with canine brutality because they have refused to alter the Iditarod's basic structure.
'Literally, the dogs run themselves to death, David Wills, the Humane Society's vice president, told the Wall Street Journal. 'There's a big difference between recreational mushing and an 1,100-mile race in the middle of winter.' The world's record for the Iditarod was set last year by musher Martin Buser. His dogs ran the 1,161 miles in 10 days, 13 hours, two minutes and 39 seconds. The Chrysler Corp. dropped its sponsorship after the dogs' deaths in 1993 but it was replaced by an association of Alaskan Dodge dealers. During the annual race, wind chill temperatures can reach 130 degrees below zero and herds of moose may attack the sledders. The race, which features a $50,000 winner's purse, is big business for Alaska, with annual souvenir sales of about $1.2 million.