The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has lost a significant, longtime sponsor and race officials this week blamed the departure on "manipulative misinformation" spread by animal rights organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
The statement from the Iditarod Trail Committee chief executive on Tuesday said Wells Fargo announced its decision to drop its sponsorship earlier this week, severing its financial tie to the sled dog race after 29 years. PETA applauded the bank's decision and claimed victory in an online post on its website.
David Kennedy, Wells Fargo spokesman for the Alaska region, declined to say whether outreach from PETA and its supporters influenced the company's decision. Kennedy said in an email this week that Wells Fargo made the decision as part of its "regular marketing sponsorship review process."
"Wells Fargo regularly reviews where we allocate our marketing resources to ensure that our efforts help our customers understand how we can help them achieve their financial goals," he said. "We have nothing further to add."
Both Kennedy and the Iditarod refused to say how much money Wells Fargo has donated to the race.
Sponsorship dates to 1988
Kennedy said the longstanding sponsorship started in 1988 when the National Bank of Alaska stepped in to provide the winner's purse for Iditarod champion Susan Butcher. Wells Fargo bought the National Bank of Alaska in 2000 and the race sponsorship continued, he said in an email.
In 2011, Wells Fargo decreased its contribution to the race, moving from the top-tier sponsor to the second-tier level, which the race calls its "lead dog partners." The bank has sponsored the Unalakleet checkpoint award since 1993, this year presenting the first Iditarod musher to the coastal community with $3,500 worth of gold nuggets and a trophy.
Chas St. George, Iditarod chief operating officer, declined to say what level of contributions defines a "lead dog" sponsor. However, Alaska Business Monthly reported in 2014 that lead dog sponsors contribute between $100,000 and $250,000 to the race.
Iditarod Chief Executive Stan Hooley said in the statement on Tuesday that "there is no doubt" the bank's decision to withdraw support was directly related to "manipulative misinformation that PETA and others have been using to target our sponsors at their corporate headquarters outside of Alaska."
"These misguided activists are implying that the Iditarod condones and engages in cruelty to sled dogs that participate in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race," the statement said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We honor the sled dogs who participate in the Iditarod."
PETA has long criticized the Iditarod. On PETA's website, the organization describes the Iditarod as an "abusive race in which dogs are run to their deaths."
Stephanie Shaw, a California-based corporate liaison at PETA, said in an interview Wednesday that the organization reached out to the Iditarod's corporate sponsors after the 2017 Iditarod "to make sure they're aware of the egregious suffering" of sled dogs both on and off the trail.
"This was one of the most tragic years in Iditarod history," Shaw said. "Five dogs died in less than a week."
During the 2017 Iditarod, three dogs collapsed on the trail and died and a fourth dog died after overheating on an airplane that the Iditarod chartered to fly dropped dogs from Galena to Anchorage. Another dropped dog got loose from a dog handler in Anchorage after being released from Iditarod care. The dog was hit and killed by a car.
It was the deadliest year for Iditarod dogs since 2009.
Appealing to Coca-Cola now
Shaw said PETA encouraged its supporters to reach out to Wells Fargo and urge the bank to end its sponsorship after the 2017 race. The organization provided a form on its website for people to fill out and send to Wells Fargo. She said more than 80,000 people filled out the form "in a matter of days."
"We are encouraging Coca-Cola to be the next sponsor to flee," Shaw said on Wednesday. "They've already received over 100,000 emails."
With Wells Fargo's withdrawal from the race, the Iditarod has four top-tier sponsors and six second-tier, or lead dog, sponsors, including Alaska Airlines and the Bristol Bay Native Corp. Coca-Cola is one of five third-tier sponsors, according to the Iditarod website.
PETA also said this week that Guggenheim Partners, a Chicago- and New York-based investment firm, had dropped its sponsorship of the Iditarod. The firm did not respond to request for comment Wednesday or Thursday. St. George, the Iditarod chief operating officer, said the Iditarod could not confirm PETA's claim. Guggenheim Partners is a "wheel dog partner," the fourth tier of Iditarod sponsorship.
The Iditarod Trail Committee reported in its latest publicly posted informational tax form, its 2015 Form 990, that it earned about $3.8 million in revenue, nearly half of that from contributions, gifts and grants.