It was hard to hold a conversation in downtown Anchorage Saturday morning, as the crowd cheered and roared for the start of the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

But as loud as it was at the start of the race, there was a moment of silence. 

A group of activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals held a funeral for five dogs that died during last year's Iditarod. One of them died of suspected overheating in a plane, while being transported from a checkpoint -- an incident that prompted Iditarod officials to change race policies.

"These dogs are being treated like machines and they are literally being run to death, "said Tricia LebKuecher, a PETA campaigner who staged the protest. "Eighty-one percent of the dogs who do manage to finish the race suffer lung damage. Their feet become bruised and bloodied, cut by ice. Many suffer stress fractures. They pull muscles, they develop pneumonia; many become sick with intestinal parasites or bleeding stomach ulcers."

The dog funeral was the first of its kind staged by PETA at Iditarod. LebKuecher cited a doping scandal involving Dallas Seavey's dogs, in which the four-time Iditarod champion has chosen to run the Finnmarkslopet sled dog race in Norway rather than this year's Iditarod, as further reason for Saturday's protest.

"With Iditarod royalty Dallas Seavey implicated in a dog doping scandal, whistleblowers coming forward with numerous, horrific allegations of abuse and five dogs dead in the course of one week last year, it’s never been more important to speak out against this cruelty," LebKuecher said. 

Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt attended the protest. Levitt claims to have exposed animal abuse in her documentary "Sled Dogs," which was screened in Anchorage Saturday afternoon.

"If they knew the way the dogs are really treated, and what really goes on behind the kennels, and what happens during the race, which we expose in the film, I don’t think people would be here," Levitt says. "One hundred and fifty dogs that we know of have died racing the Iditarod -- and for what, for a race? Is this what we do to our very best friends?"

Chas St. George, chief operating officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee, called Saturday's protest "inappropriate."

"I was at least glad to see that peaceful protest was conducted and that there were no problems during that time," St. George said, noting that the committee has enacted changes since the death of the five dogs last year. 

"That's a huge number for us, and that's not acceptable. We have to do better. We changed our protocols immediately after the flight that took place in order to make sure that did not happen again," St. George said. 

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