A Canadian documentary has become a key weapon in a campaign against the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the filmmaker says it helped persuade a major corporate sponsor to pull its support. The decision by Wells Fargo was made after the company viewed parts of Fern Levitt's film Sled Dogs, according to the Toronto filmmaker and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Ms. Levitt said PETA told her it gave a Wells Fargo official information about the Iditarod and showed the documentary. Disturbed by its content, the U.S. banking institution decided not to sponsor the epic dogsled race in the future, she said.
"They watched it … and that's when they decided, 'Okay, we can no longer continue supporting a race that does this to dogs,'" Ms. Levitt said on Friday.
Wells Fargo has been sponsoring Alaska's iconic sled-dog race for nearly three decades, according to PETA. When contacted about the decision – and the film's role in it – by The Globe and Mail on Friday, the company sent a statement:
"Wells Fargo regularly reviews where we allocate our marketing resources to build and enhance relationships with customers and the broader community. As part of this process, we have decided not to sponsor the Iditarod in 2018."
When asked to confirm that the decision was made after viewing Sled Dogs, spokesman Ruben Pulido said in an e-mail that the company's marketing strategies are confidential as they operate in a competitive business environment.
But according to PETA, the film was a factor.
"It certainly had a demonstrable impact," PETA's senior international media director Ben Williamson said. "It's a great film, a noble undertaking for sure, and we've been using it in almost all of our promotional materials about the Iditarod since it came out. We've been calling it the Iditarod's Blackfish," a documentary about the sea-park industry.
The film exposes poor treatment of animals at some commercial sled-dog operations – and also documents the sled dog cull in Whistler that followed a slowdown in business after the 2010 Winter Olympics.
PETA said it has sent the film to other Iditarod sponsors, including Coca Cola, which is now a major target of the animal rights group's anti-Iditarod efforts. Chrysler, State Farm and Exxon Mobil are also on the list.
The film caused controversy before its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival (where it tied for the world documentary award and won best female-directed documentary). At a screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto earlier this month, security had to be called after the audience Q&A became heated, Ms. Levitt said. The film airs this Sunday on CBC's documentary channel.
Some people in the dog-sled industry – including a rookie Iditarod musher featured in the film – have decried the documentary as biased and one-sided.
"There's no two sides," Ms. Levitt said when asked about the criticism. "This is what dog sledding is. This is the commercial dog-sledding industry. And what I've shown is what's pervasive in the dog-sledding industry in North America. What we've shown in the film is absolutely accurate."
Like PETA, Ms. Levitt said she hopes other corporations will follow Wells Fargo's lead.
"I applaud them for that decision, but we still have a long way to go. There's lots of companies that support the Iditarod and they need to see the truth; they need to see the film too," Ms. Levitt said. "So I hope this is the beginning of other sponsors taking away their sponsorship."
Iditarod Trail committee chief executive Stan Hooley said in a statement that Wells Fargo and other sponsors have been targeted with "manipulative misinformation" by PETA and others.
"These misguided activists are implying that the Iditarod condones and engages in cruelty to sled dogs…," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."