by Maeve Salichuk
The controversial documentary Sled Dogs, directed by filmmaker Fern Levitt, delves into some ugly truths about the commercial dogsledding industry in North America. Taking over two years to film, Sled Dogs showcases the living conditions for the majority of dogs born into this life.
It was in 2010 that Levitt visited Chocpaw, a dogsled tour company in Ontario. There she found that the dogs were housed in terrible conditions. She was able to adopt a dog named Slater, saving him that very day. He had spent most of his first nine years chained. Levitt, who has been a filmmaker for over 25 years, decided she had to tell the story of the dogs that are bred for this industry.
The controversy surrounding this film was apparent at a recent showing in Toronto, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. People from within the dogsledding community, including Patrick Beall, a musher who is featured in the film, showed up to defend themselves. They claimed the film misrepresented their industry, saying that their dogs are not overworked or kept in abusive conditions, that they only run when they want to, and that they love to run.
…there is no doubt that living conditions will vary between operators…
There is no doubt that living conditions will vary between operators. However, the companies depicted in Levitt’s film show the hard truth about what happens at large commercial dogsledding operations. The owners, handlers and mushers see the film as a threat to their sport and income but as Levitt notes, “This film is not for the mushers. It’s for the public”.
The commercial world of dogsledding attracts thousands of tourists each year in North America. Windrift Kennels in Moonstone, Ontario, trains dogs for this industry. The film shows how the dogs are each chained to a post outside in a yard with access to tiny shelters and no opportunity to interact with each other. We see as owner Gena Pierce, pulls on the collar of a six month old dog named Lydia, who is clearly unwilling, in order to transfer her to a yard where she will be left chained to a post. “There is a bit of distress there,” says Pierce. “They’re just letting the world know that they’re not happy.” Later on in the film, one of the crew members alerts Pierce during an interview that one of the dogs appears ill. A dog named Ratchet has died in the night, judging by the amount of snow covering his body. Pierce had been unaware.
Dogs are shown in the film with open sores on their noses and necks from chewing their water buckets and shelters, and from running in circles out of boredom while tethered. This type of living condition “goes completely against what their internal needs and their internal drives are telling them, so it’s very stressful for them,” says animal behavioural scientist Dr. Rebecca Ledger.
The film follows musher Patrick Beall as he races in the 44th annual Iditarod in 2016. Also known as The Last Great Race, it was inspired by a 1925 event, when a diptheria antitoxin was rushed to Nome, Alaska. It was an effort made by 20 mushers and approximately 150 sled dogs, who covered 674 miles in five and a half days. It was done relay style, with new dogs swapped in at each stop along the way.
The Iditarod covers over 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome and has 85 mushers competing with the same team of dogs for the entire race. If any of the dogs display signs of injury or distress they are left behind at the next check point. The remaining dogs in the team continue after a rest. Mushers compete for prize money and of course, the glory of finishing “The Last Great Race”.
”They’re marketing it as a re-creation of that event (the 1925 serum run) and it bears no resemblance to the event. It’s a big money sporting event now,” says Stephen Wells, Executive Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“There’s more people that have climbed Mount Everest than have finished the Iditarod,” says Beall, a musher who was born in Norman, Oklahoma. He placed 64th as a rookie in the race. He started out with a team of sixteen dogs and finished with eleven. ”I want my team to be like a machine, a well-oiled machine.” It took him nearly twelve days to complete the race.
“Being an outdoorsman, I’ve always wanted to come to Alaska,” Beall says. ”I love taking care of dogs”.
Approximately one third of all dogs who race in the Iditarod are physically unable to finish.
Mike Crawford, a former Iditarod handler interviewed in the film, weeps while speaking of his dog, a former sled dog also named Mike. “It’s hard for me to talk about him. He had been totally broken, mind and spirit.”
…approximately one third of all dogs who race in the Iditarod are physically unable to finish…
The film also covers two notorious cases of cruelty that achieved convictions against dog sled operation owners. One, in Whistler, saw the owner found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to some of the dogs he culled. It is legal to execute a dog in Canada and the government provides instructions on how to do so. An exhumation by the B.C. SPCA of a mass grave found evidence of cruelty and Bob Fawcett of Howling Dog Tours was sentenced to three years’ probation plus fines in 2011.
The Krabloonik dogsled company operates in Snowmass,
Colorado and owner Dan MacEachen was convicted on one count of animal cruelty in 2015. Seven other charges against him were dismissed. This was after years of fighting by local activists who had discovered that in the off-season, the company’s dogs were chained and seemingly forgotten.
“There are many dogs here and no one is coming back to check on them. There’s no one here. This is a storage facility. These dogs are just here to be stored until they can make money,” says Bill Fabrocini, co-founder of Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs.
Danny and Gina Phillips, who had worked for MacEachen, are now the new owners of Krabloonik. Interviewed in the film, they state that the dogs under their care currently spend at least six hours off tether per week.
There are some happy endings in the film. Seth Sachson, a former musher, adopted his six dogs from Krabloonik. They live with him as pets. He takes them out often for runs, but they spend the rest of their time enjoying a life free from chains. ”Even if these guys stopped pulling a sled today, I’d still love them just the same,” Seth states in the film.
The future of these dogs is important to filmmaker Fern Levitt and she hopes Sled Dogs will start an important conversation that will lead to real change. “If we Canadians don’t stand up for these heroes of the North for what is right, then who will?”
For more information about the dogsledding industry, visit www.cbc.ca/documentarychannel.