Animal rights group PETA continues targeting Iditarod sponsors

Race executive says effort to stop the race will fail
PETA is claiming increasing success in convincing sponsors of the Iditarod race to drop support for the competition.
Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 5:50 PM AKST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2023 at 7:36 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is claiming increasing success in convincing sponsors of the Iditarod race to drop support for the competition.

But a top executive of the Iditarod says sponsors come and go and the future of the race is not threatened.

Several big-name national sponsors have walked away from the annual Alaska sled dog race in recent years, while other local sponsors and a handful of national companies remain as partners.

PETA claims its protests are largely responsible for the departures, and now the organization has more corporations in its sights as it tries to put an end to the Iditarod.

There is no doubt that as race organizers and mushing teams prepare for the start of the Last Great Race, the event is taking place with fewer well-known names as corporate partners. PETA has sent supporters to Anchorage, protesting in person, running full-page newspaper ads, and buying radio ad time.

One PETA radio ad includes a line from someone claiming, “I’m an Alaskan and do not support the Iditarod.”

“PETA started our campaign against the Iditarod because we learned about the horrific deaths that dogs are suffering on the trail,” said Michelle Sinnott, PETA’s national director of what the organization calls Captive Animal Law Enforcement.

Iditarod CEO, Rob Urbach, insists PETA is peddling old news.

“There’s really no new stories,” Urbach said. “They recycle old stories that have been largely fabricated, grossly inflammatory, highly inaccurate. You know, our culture is one of consciousness of dog care, exemplary dog care ... We’re a community of love and compassion for our dogs.”

But PETA claims great success over the years. Their web page on the Iditarod shows a long list of companies the group says have abandoned the Iditarod since the race began.

Urbach does not deny sponsors have left, but says it’s just a routine part of business.

“Sponsors make decisions. Some may or may not be because of PETA,” Urbach said. “We’re focused on putting on, we think, the best sled dog race in the world.

“I think the Iditarod has actually had a pretty good record about retaining sponsors, I think every most sponsors — 90% of our sponsors — come back year after year, which is pretty high for the sports business. I’ve been in the sports business for a long, long time. There’s natural turnover with sponsors. Sure, PETA tries to intimidate and scare away sponsors. But again, it’s a lot of noise.”

Over just the last three years, a trio of well-known long-time sponsors departed.

Alaska Airlines ended its sponsorship after the 2020 race. The company said at the time the decision had nothing to do with PETA.

ExxonMobil left after the 2021 race. The company explained its decision in a statement sent to Alaska’s News Source.

“After careful review of sponsorships in light of current economic conditions, we’ve decided to conclude our sponsorship of the Iditarod following the 2021 race. This was a difficult decision given our long history of support for the race and its importance to Alaskans,” the statement read.

The statement never mentioned PETA. ExxonMobil also noted that it still financially supports a range of civic organizations in the state.

While the Lakefront Hotel remains the official race hotel, its parent company Millennium Hotels and Resorts ended its national sponsorship of the Iditarod after the 2022 race. Millennium did not respond to requests for comment.

Whether or not PETA is directly responsible for those decisions, the organization told Alaska’s News Source it is now targeting one of the largest companies still partnering with the race: GCI Communication Corporation.

“Since we’ve started our campaign, at least dozens of sponsors have dropped — Exxon Mobil, Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola, Millennium Hotels and Resorts — all the major sponsors, except for one remaining holdout, which is Liberty Media and Liberty Media’s subsidiary GCI, currently sponsors the Iditarod to the tune of $250,000 a year, and PETA is urging Liberty Media to drop their sponsorship,” Sinnott said.

GCI Chief Communications Officer Heather Handyside said that GCI plans to continue sponsoring the Iditarod.

“GCI has been supporting the Iditarod for 30 years. It’s an iconic Alaska event that celebrates the spirit of the Last Frontier and honors traditions of Alaska Native culture. We sponsor the Iditarod because we know firsthand, as Alaskans, that the Iditarod prioritizes the health of canine athletes during the event,” Handyside wrote in an email. “We are committed to supporting the Iditarod and celebrating these elite canine athletes and using research, education, and real-time experiences to benefit dog health for millions of pet owners. The Iditarod staff, volunteers, mushers, and millions of fans worldwide are devoted dog-lovers and prioritize their care and well-being.”

The exact dollars and cents at stake are hard to determine. Iditarod executives won’t say how much sponsorship dollars have disappeared.

PETA won’t say how much money it spent on its campaign against the race.

On Friday, Capstone Family Medicine in Wasilla provided the race with some welcome news; renewing its partnership deal for next year.

Donlin Gold remains one of the race’s principal financial sponsors. External Affairs Manager Kristina Woolston says the race is important to the company, despite PETA’s complaints.

“We feel that their assertions are unfounded, and the race itself and the dedication to the safety of the athletes and the mushers is paramount,” Woolston said. “And we feel that the Iditarod is an exemplary place in making those a priority for Alaskans and in our rural communities.”

Woolston also says Donlin Gold has tried to discuss the issues with PETA, but without success.

She says they would try to impress on PETA how important the race is, particularly to Alaska Native culture.

“Our culture is paramount in continuing our Alaska Native arts, our Alaska Native traditions, our language, our communities,” she said. “Those are things that we need to continue and the Iditarod is just part of the story that Alaskans need to continue to tell in order to keep our culture and our communities relevant and moving forward.”

Representatives from both PETA and the Iditarod say they will prevail in the long run.

“I’ve been protesting the start, the ceremonial start, the restart, I’ve protested in Nome. I have been protesting this race for years, and I will continue to protest this race. PETA will continue to protest this race, so long as it takes to make sure dogs are no longer run to their deaths in the Iditarod,” Sinnott said.

“We’ve been through 51 years of enormous challenges, enormous differentials in weather extremes, and the Iditarod will be here in 2072,” Urbach said.

The Iditarod begins Saturday with an all-time low of 33 mushing teams signed up to compete.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from GCI.