ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The world's most famous sled dog race has lost a major backer, and Alaska race officials are blaming animal rights organizations for pressuring corporate sponsors outside the state like Wells Fargo with "manipulative information" about the treatment of the dogs.
Wells Fargo spokesman David Kennedy said Wednesday the banking institution's investment in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has declined since 2010. He said he could not discuss specific reasons for the San Francisco-based bank dropping the sponsorship altogether.
"Wells Fargo regularly reviews where we allocate our marketing resources to build and enhance relationships with customers and the broader community," he said in a statement. "As part of this process, we have decided not to sponsor the Iditarod in 2018."
PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, lauded the decision. The organization has been a longtime critic of the race and said it alerted the bank that five dogs connected to this year's race died. Those deaths bring the total dog deaths to more than 150 in the Iditarod's history, the group said.
"The Iditarod can count on losing more sponsors, and PETA is now urging Coca-Cola to do right by dogs and be the next one to flee," PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said in a statement.
Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley said there's no doubt the decision is related to activists like PETA wrongly implying the Iditarod condones cruel treatment of the dogs.
"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," he said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We honor the sled dogs who participate in the Iditarod. We take every step to ensure our canine athletes are provided the very best care possible on the trail, and always treated with respect."
Three of the deaths in this year's Iditarod occurred during the race. Two other dogs died when they finished racing. One was hit by a car after it was flown to Anchorage and another died as it was flown to Anchorage.
Race spokesman Chas St. George could not provide a count of the number of dogs who died in the 1,000-mile race since it began in 1973, but disputed PETA's total of 150 dog deaths.
"There are no records of dog deaths during the early years of the race, so we can't provide you with an accurate number," he wrote in an email. "I don't know how PETA can factually make that claim."
Both Iditarod and Wells Fargo declined to disclose the dollar amount of the bank's sponsorships, but it was significant enough for Wells Fargo to earn a spot on the sponsor banner that hangs under the start and finish lines.
However, Kennedy said Wells Fargo dropped its top-level sponsorship beginning with the 2011 race, when it chose to sponsor the race at the second-tier level.
Kennedy declined to reveal the ranges for those levels, and St. George did not immediately disclose those amounts.
The race has four top-level sponsors, called principal partners, including Exxon Mobil, the Alaska mine Donlin Gold, Alaska cable company GCI and an Anchorage car dealer.
Wells Fargo used to be in the next level, called lead dog partners. Other sponsors at that level include Alaska Airlines.
St. George said earlier Wednesday the Iditarod is looking for new potential sponsors.