Omak Stampede loses two sponsors
Two large corporations have withdrawn their sponsorships of this year's Omak Stampede and Suicide Race after lobbying by the Progressive...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Two large corporations have withdrawn their sponsorships of this year's Omak Stampede and Suicide Race after lobbying by the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
But organizers said losing longtime sponsors Wal-Mart and Diageo, the maker of Crown Royal whiskey, won't halt the popular rodeo in Okanogan County, which each night is followed by riders on horses plunging down a steep hill into the Okanogan River.
The two companies together contributed only about $1,850 to a $160,000 budget, said Stampede President Jim Hensarling.
"I do not at this time intend on ending the Suicide Race," Hensarling said. "All individuals have a right to their beliefs, but to make an accurate decision, you've got to come and witness what actually goes on."
Begun in the 1930s, the four-day Omak Stampede, held the second week of August, attracts 30,000 visitors to Okanogan County and brings in more than $500,000 to the area. But in the past two decades, 19 horses have died in the Suicide Race.
For PAWS of Lynnwood, an organization whose members wrote to Stampede sponsors urging them to pull out, the retreat of Wal-Mart and Crown Royal represents shifting views on animal rights. The Lynnwood group has been working for 20 years to stop the Suicide Race. Like all local PAWS groups, it operates independently from the national umbrella organization.
"In the past 20 years there have been many studies done on animals, and our knowledge of them has grown so much," said spokeswoman Zibby Wilder. "They aren't just things we can use and abuse for our own entertainment."
Wal-Mart will shift donations to the Okanogan County Fair, said Wal-Mart spokesman Marty Heires. The company had sponsored the event off and on for more than a decade, mainly through donations that totaled $1,000 this year, said Hensarling. For the past two years, Crown Royal had given $850 a year.
"We were not aware of what happens at the Omak Stampede" until contacted by PAWS, said Dan Sanborn of Norwalk, Conn., a spokesman for Diageo, which is based in England.
"Diageo is very corporately responsible and without hesitation pulled out."
Other companies, such as Pepsi, that are still sponsoring the events argue that local independent franchise owners, and not the national corporation, make the decision.
Some of the companies also say they sponsor only the rodeo and not the Suicide Race.
But the two events are marketed together, and Hensarling is ultimately in charge of both, though specific details of the Suicide Race are overseen by Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
So PAWS believes that sponsoring the rodeo condones the Suicide Race.
"We're not against the rodeo at all, and the Indian encampment is one of the best in the West," Wilder said. "The race endangers the lives of animals and people, and has a deadly history. Over what? Some money?"
Efforts have been made to make the race safer, Hensarling counters. This year the number of horses in the Suicide Race has been reduced from 20 to 15, and the entry fee has increased from $100 to $250, discouraging less-able riders. Last year, organizers began requiring riders to wear life vests with reflective tape so they will be visible at night.
The race is said to be based on a traditional race among the Colville Indians that was held on Colville's Keller Mountain. However, the traditional race was not run at night.
"Racing has been a part of the Indian culture for years," said Mary Marchand, 78, a historian at the Colville Confederated Tribes' History Department. "I don't like them [PAWS] attacking things we've done for years and years."
Lisa Chiu: 206-464-2349 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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