Iditarod nightmare

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A screen shot of dead canines from the trailer for “Sled Dogs”

Trailer for Iditarod-critical movie now on YouTube


A rumored take-down documentary on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hasn’t hit the big screen yet, but the trailer is out and the Alaska mushing community is in a near panic.

“This horrible anti-sled dog film is going to be screened at film festivals around Canada. It is pure propaganda, NOT a documentary,” musher Lisbet Norris posted on her Faceback page Tuesday.

Parts of the movie were shot during the Iditarod in Alaska last year by Canadian film maker Fern Levitt. She had $400,000 in hand from the Canadian Media Fund, an entity backed by the Canadian government, to shoot a sled-dog documentary.

The Iditarod provided her some assistance thinking the movie was to be what most have been: extended promos for Alaska’s Last Great Race.

And the trailer for “Sled Dogs” opens with pretty, aerial footage of the Iditarod 44 restart in and around Willow with a musher talking about the uniqueness of the race: “There’s more people that (sic) have climbed Mount Everest than that have finished the Iditarod.”

But it doesn’t take long before things get grittier:

“It’s kind of like somebody running a marathon, and now somebody asks you to run 10 in a row. That’s what these guys are doing”….There’s a price for it.”

It just gets worse for the mushing community from there as the movie shifts to Snowmass, Colo., where one-time Iditarod musher Dan MacEachen was charged with animal cruelty in 2013 after a raid on his kennel.

There are accusations that young dogs are killed if they lack competitive potential, and old ones put down when they are no longer of use to mushers. There is video of stressed dogs on short chains in muddy dog lots. There is rough video of dead dogs found in a shipping trailer in Willow.

The tagline beneath the YouTube video makes no bones about what the documentary is about:

“Directed by: Fern Levitt

“A provoking expose of the cruelty to dogs that permeates the commercial sled dog industry that supply (sic) sled dogs for such famous races as the Iditarod in Alaska. The film addresses the sled dog cull that occurred in Whistler and the attempts by locals to run an ethical sled dog business in its stead.”

The 82-minute-long movie is on the schedule for the Whistler Film Festival. It is slated to air Dec. 3 at the Maury Young Arts Centre and Dec. 4 at the Village 8 Cinema in the ski-resort community in British Columbia, Canada.

Norris wrote that the movie has a companion website – – that contains a list of  “almost every operating dog sled tour kennel in Alaska…(and) calls for boycotting the industry and the Iditarod.”

The link was not working Tuesday evening. It said the site was under maintenance but would soon launch.

The movie is certain to cause problems for the Iditarod which everyone agrees has some dirt in its closet. Not all mushers are the best of people.

As Norris, a kind and responsible young musher, observes in a comment on her own page:

I want to repost some comments Susan Rogan made on the Musher Tip Worldwide Page as I strongly agree with them…..’For starters, anyone who keeps their dogs on 4 foot chains and houses them in plastic barrels in a mud pit needs to clean up their act. I would not want my identity as a dog musher associated with people like that and I don’t know why anyone would want to protect or defend that kind of treatment of animals. That said, to say that there should be no sled dogs anymore seems to be throwing out the precious baby with the dirty bath water. As too often happens, she has gone off her nut and is splatter bombing everyone with the ugly behaviour (sic) of people who I would also call borderline or straight up dog abusers.

“That woman owns a horse. I could take pictures of horses that are badly treated, and I could go into details of some horse racers and say, “They all suck! Look what happened to this horse! Don’t ever go on a horse tour again, horse stalls should be illegal, and there should never again be any horse events!” So every person who loves their horses and treats them well, and who participates in races or events gets called an animal abuser? How would she like that?!

“…People who offer tours with their sled dogs should abide by and encourage high standards, then don’t sweat it, and let the chips fall where they may. Have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. Same goes for racing kennels. Proper dog care, good conditions, love and affection and an opportunity for the dogs to just be dogs (not just sports equipment or business capital).”






18 replies »

  1. Users are very clever in pulling out all the rationalizations in the book to support their using of dogs (and all the various forms of abuse and neglect which go along with it) for their own selfish wants and desires.

    The Iditarod race, by it’s very nature, is cruelty to dogs. But the breeding, culling, and living conditions associated with it are also cruel. Time for people to do their OWN work, and rely on their OWN strength and agility, in whatever REAL sport they choose.

  2. All of the mushers are screaming foul about the trailer for this film, but where were they during the abuse cases? Why weren’t they screaming about the abusers? Only now when they fear for themselves…Clear as day.

  3. Seem to be a lot of hot under the collar “mushers” crying “foul” over a movie that no-one has seen yet. The “foul” it seems would be the alleged misrepresentation of content provided to the film maker. It would be a shame if that diverted attention from what are…allegedly…some very real issues in mushing that need to be addressed.

    Perhaps everyone should first watch the film, then cast judgement.

  4. I have been an avid Iditarod fan for decades, since Susan Butcher began winning. I have companion rescue huskies (not sled dogs). I adore this breed, their intelligence and their capabilities. That said, I admire, and agree with virtually everything that Susan Rogan writes. There are a plethora of outstanding sled dog kennels…and I suspect, even more abusive ones, where non-first rate competitors struggle to maintain a “competitive” kennel, or even feed everyone. The Iditarod currently seems to have a schitzophrenic mission: on the one hand, as Joe Redington stated, to support sled dogs in the villages. Now, I walk extensively with my dogs in many places. Every now and then, I run into someone who stops and admires the dogs, and who grew up in an Alaskan village. Without exception, they tell me horror stories of the treatment of dogs. Clearly, there are MANY Alaskan native people who run sled dogs and give them outstanding care; but that was mostly not the tradition, as I am told; so exactly what traditions does Iditarod want to uphold? I’m just asking.
    On the other hand, Iditarod wants to present itself as a world class race. This invites scrutiny, especially when the athletes are dogs; dogs who cannot speak for themselves. It’s lovely to present an image of the noble mushers (of which there are very many, who I personally admire) and their wonderful dogs (legions); but when the race is half?-filled with sub-par care and kennels that kill extra dogs, the truth is not pretty.
    This movie sounds like a terribly biased view of abuses that paints everyone with the same broad brush of condemnation as noted by several commentors above.

    I think/hope we all remember the massacre of the Whistler 100, which made an opening to shine light on ALL sled dog operations. I hope that what sounds like a terrible film may at least open new perspectives on how to evolve a sport so many of us love.

  5. Maybe 10% of a sled dog pup litter will be suited to competitively run the Iditarod- of a litter specifically bred from selected dogs for this purpose. Basic breeding and genetics of natural selection guarantee this, with the odd exceptional “super litters”. Super litters are why Lance Mackey dominated, and then stopped. The dogs were truly exceptional.

    Most sled dogs retire at around 7- 8 years old, when they still have almost half their lives ahead of them.

    An Iditarod musher must breed many litters a year to field an Iditarod team. So around 90% of pups, and 100% of retired dogs are useless to that musher- with a few fantastic stud dogs and maybe some retired lead dogs kept around. What then? Are we (general we) OK with humanely killing the extras? Are we OK with supporting the Iditarod machine that supports this level of puppy-production?

    Additionally, the amount of time and effort that goes into working with upwards of 100 dogs that are in most Iditarod kennels is huge. I highly doubt the bond between mushers and their dogs is what they say. It can’t be.

    I know and respect mushers who do it right. I love skijoring and mushing with my dogs. It’s a beautiful sport. My problem is the Iditarod industry, that causes, by basic design, 1,000s of unwanted dogs and puppies. It is difficult for any human to bond, train, exercise, care for, and clean up after the number of dogs needed to field and Iditarod team.

    Anyone who is interested in mushing should go visit a few kennels- the ACTUAL kennels where Iditarod dogs are kept, not the ones up front for the tourists. Ask some questions, and decide for yourself whether the Iditarod industry is something you can get behind.

    Iditarod, and competitive, commercial mushing kennels, are completely different than well-kept, small, recreational kennels where dogs are kept for life and litters are rare. I am not at all against working dogs, racing dogs, or dog sports. Its the mass production of pups for industry, that is what I question.

    • I agree with you. It’s inspiring to watch the race, but I have always felt uncomfortable with what it takes to become the top competitors. All the failed wannabes and miserable chained up dogs that forms the base of the pyramid. And the vastly different perceptions of dog lot owners of what constitutes good dog care. I’ve seen enough to know that I would not want to be reincarnated to become a sled dog, even in the best kennel.

  6. One aspect of running a large dog lot that has me puzzled: how can mushers afford veterinary care. I can barely afford preventive care for my 3 cats. And when they get sick, the bills can quickly eat up my emergency funds.

    • I can help to partly answer that. First, most of these dogs have a great combination of a healthy diet and lots of exercise and so tend to not be plagued with the diseases of fat pets. Mushers, including myself, purchase our own vaccines (we get ours from our vet) and administer them ourselves. Our vet comes out to administer rabies vaccines.
      Mushers tend to foster strong relationships with their vets who are more than happy to help teach them various things. I am able for instance to staple any wounds (haven’t done it once this year) and if I am unsure of the appropriate antibiotic, I can call him and he will advise me. We keep a plethora of medications on hand. We also keep bags of saline on hand in the case of dehydration. It is a very simple process to give fluids under the skin.
      We also purchase dewormer from the feed store and worm 4 times a year. We use one wormer in the fall and spring and another dewormer in the winter and summer.
      My vets trusts me to call him when he is really needed. He even had me assist with a leg amputation about 4 yrs ago. Now that was a learning experience!!
      Pet owners would be surprised to understand just how much they are capable of when it comes to an animal’s health.

      • Your reply does nothing to reassure me that dogs in large dog lots receive excellent veterinary care.

  7. Thank you to Fern Levitt for your work and experience as a talented film producer….the international community will stand up in broad support for this film and the boycott of commercial sled dog activities….Alaska will be forced to face the modern reality that this barbaric way of leaving dogs on a four foot chain through forty below artic conditions is WAY out of line with modern animal care practices and regulations….Alaskans will shortly find themselves saying “Which side are you on boy, which side are you on?”

    • I just checked. Nope, no 4 foot chains here. Fat, healthy, hardy, Arctic breeds in our yard. All have houses with fresh clean straw – most don’t use them.
      Ms. Levitt misrepresented herself to the funding source and used $400,000 of Canadian taxpayer money to produce this film. She also misrepresented herself to mushers who welcomed her with open arms and homes.
      I have to wonder, since she is a passionate equestrian hunter jumper competitor, if her next film will be about the abuses that occur in that sport?
      I am all for a story well told – no matter how hard – but to blatantly misrepresent and lie, well documentary film making, the last bastion of solid journalism, is dead.

  8. These mushers, kennels, IROD and the Canadian Film Fund company need to “lawyer-up” collectively and sue this woman, her film crew and all representatives of the film for misrepresentation, misleading and blatant lying. Libel, slander and defamation of character are all written all over this. The Canadian Film Fund could probably sue for damages and the return of all monies given for this film to be created. I see the part of the site that lists the kennel names to boycott has been taken down. I have pictures of every kennel that was listed. She should not be allowed to commit these illegal acts and get away with it. Also, the sponsors should be contacted so their attorneys can also counter her actions and sue.

    • Angie: without seeing the movie, it’s hard to say if there are grounds for a lawsuit. the trailer, whether we like it or not, clearly falls under “fair comment” standards in this country. there are mushers who’ve culled dogs. and the existence of the Iditarod has encouraged any number of wannabe mushers (and a few who actually made it into the Iditarod) who weren’t the best with dogs. Charlotte Fitzhugh from up Chistochina way comes immediately to mind, but only because Will Forsberg got Martin Buser, Rick Swenson, and me to go to her kennel with the idea of staging some kind of intervention back during one of the early Copper Basin 300 races. the operation was a nightmare: dirty, puppies running loose everywhere, skinny dogs bordering on starved, no caretaker to be found anywhere, etc., etc. the state eventually shut it down and charged her with 18 counts of cruelty to animals. people like Charlotte might be the worst of it. they’re not Iditarod’s fault, but Iditarod sucks them and their strange Iditarod dreams out of the woodwork. a skillful lawyer could get a lot of mileage out of that alone. a lawsuit might make things worse rather than better.

  9. Thank you. Convenient the site is down–many good people would like to defend their name and businesses we know were listed. Hope you help us keep tabs.

    • There’s a full list of the kennels in the US listed on the Mushing Tips Worldwide Facebook page. Someone took screenshots before the site went down

      • Ms Levitt and her sled dogs films web site had an extensive list of kennels in Canada and Alaska and people were encouraged to participate in a writing campaign. Quite a few of those kennels are no longer offering tours and their dogs are in their quiet senior years. I can guarantee that if my mail box is filled with letters, I will consider this harassment and act accordingly.

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