“Grace and Frankie” star Lily Tomlin has added her name to PETA’s campaign targeting Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ connection to the Iditarod sled dog race through an Alaska dealership.
Tomlin, a Detroit native and acting legend whose TV credits date to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” has signed a letter to FCA CEO Mike Manley asking him to intervene.
“As a big fan of dogs and a Detroit native, I was saddened to learn of Chrysler’s association with the Iditarod. I’ve read that you’re a no-nonsense executive, so I respectfully urge you to distance Chrysler from this deadly, nonsensical spectacle in Alaska,” according to the letter.
In an interview, Tomlin emphasized her concern about the treatment of the dogs.
“It’s really pretty gruesome, the way the dogs are kept,” Tomlin said. “The dogs run this grueling race, but then they’re kept in such brutal circumstances.”
FCA, in the past, has pointed to the local dealership, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, as the sponsor of the event when asked about it, but the company indicated in a statement Monday that it has discussed the situation with the dealership.
“FCA US LLC does not sponsor or support the Iditarod. However, a locally owned and operated independent dealership in Anchorage has been a sponsor. FCA is aware of specific concerns about the Iditarod event and has raised these issues with the dealership,” according to the statement.
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The battle is the latest skirmish in the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ campaign against FCA and the Iditarod, which has included protesting outside the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The Norfolk, Virginia-based organization, controversial in its own right because of its attention-getting protests, highlights what it calls an exposé from a PETA eyewitness who worked in the Alaskan sled dog industry in 2018 and 2019 and documented dogs denied veterinary care for injuries, “constantly chained” next to boxes and forced to run hundreds of miles despite exhaustion and dehydration.
A spokesman for the dealership pushed back against PETA and the claims of animal cruelty. Chuck Talsky, who handles advertising for the dealership, defended the race and its treatment of sled dogs.
Talsky acknowledged that 150 dogs in the race had died since it began in 1973 but said that’s a fraction of the tens of thousands of dogs that have been involved. The dogs, he insisted, are treated well.
“You’re relying on these dogs. You’re not going to treat them like trash,” Talsky said, noting that the dogs demonstrate their love for sledding by their excitement. “They’re jumping up and down screaming because they want to go so bad. They’re bred for it.”
Talsky said the race, which is also sponsored by ExxonMobil, offers a tremendous advertising tie-in for the dealership. Alaska’s state sport is dog mushing.
“There’s no Final Four. We have sled dog racing,” Talsky said, noting that the Iditarod is not well understood in the lower 48 states. “We are a driving force, if you will, for the Last Great Race on Earth.”
Chrysler Corp. was once a sponsor of the race, but that ended in the early 1990s, Talsky said. The dealership has been a sponsor since 1997, awarding a new Ram truck to the victor each year.
Joseph Holt, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame University’s Mendoza College of Business, said PETA’s focus on FCA rather than the dealership is not out of bounds.
“The company does bear some responsibility for the action at least in the sense that they entered into an agreement with the dealership that enabled the dealership to take action under the Fiat Chrysler name. They wouldn’t have been able to do that without the franchisor’s permission,” Holt said. “I do believe it’s reasonable for PETA to pressure the parent company. Members of the public often don’t make the fine distinction the law makes between acts of the franchisee and acts of the franchisor.”
Holt pointed as an example to protests at BP gas stations following the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, the massive 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and injured 17 others.
Colleen O’Brien, PETA’s vice president, said FCA is fair game for PETA’s campaign.
“Consumers don’t differentiate from Chrysler the corporation and individual dealerships, and so Chrysler should undoubtedly step in and stop their name from being associated (with) such a deadly and horrible race,” O’Brien said. “Today’s race, it lacks the purpose of the original Iditarod trail which was used to deliver emergency supplies. Tradition is not an excuse.”
Talsky, however, suggested that those who endorse the PETA position are uninformed about the race and the treatment of the dogs, and he attacked PETA directly, criticizing the group’s euthanizing of animals at its Virginia shelter. O’Brien defended the facility, which she called a shelter of last resort, saying the criticism was an attempt to divert attention from the race.
A Rolling Stone magazine piece published last year about PETA’s escalating campaign against the Iditarod captured the conflicting sentiments tied up in the race.
“Depending on the kind of animal lover you are, the Ceremonial Start of the world’s premier sled-dog race is either a jubilant send-off, or an utterly vulgar celebration of carnage — a moral travesty dragged over the race’s 998 miles of mountains and Arctic sea-ice for two weeks,” according to the magazine.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.