Internet dog war


Veteran Canadian film maker Fern Levitt still isn’t talking about her yet-to-be-seen but already controversial documentary “Sled Dogs,” but she’s got to be relishing the ever-growing attention the film is getting.

Shot on location in Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – “Sled Dogs” isn’t set to premier until the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 3 , but it’s already generating more than its fair share of internet discussion and argument.

One of the hundreds of people commenting beneath the “Sled Dogs” trailer featured on the Whistler Film YouTube page summed well the boat load of free publicity the film has generated since Alaska dog mushers began protesting the movie as a grossly unfair attack on sled-dog sports.

“I like how none of the other trailers for videos that are to be shown have mush (sic) as far as comments or thumbs downs go,” wrote Mandy C.

Fifty, full-length feature films are set to air in Whistler. None are generating close to the buzz of “Sled Dogs,” the trailer of which opens with pretty pictures of the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race but quickly cuts away to dead dogs.

Comments come from both fans and opponents of “The Last Great Race.” Dozens of Iditarod mushers and sled-dog business owners have attacked the film as misleading, and they have been urging their friends and acquaintances to post comments on the You Tube page.

Debate on

But so, too, activists for animal rights, who have been making the same but opposite appeal to their supporters.

“A new documentary is exposing serious animal welfare problems in the sled dog industry in North America,” the Vancouver (Canada) Humane Society posted on its webpage. “Please view the film’s trailer here and comment. You can express opposition to the tethering of sled dogs and ‘culling’ by gunshot.

“If you are able to attend the Whistler Film Festival, we encourage you to  see this film.”

Whistler is a world-famous, British Columbia ski resort about 75 miles north of Vancouver, a metropolitan area home to an estimated 2.4 million people. Whistler is also the location of a gruesome, 2010 sled-dog slaughter.

The dogs were owned by Howling Dogs Tour Whistler Inc., which grew its business in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics only to find itself with too many mouths to feed after Olympic business peaked and faded away. About 100 dogs were shot and buried in a pit.

The Howling Dog story became big news in British Columbia and angered many. Levitt probably couldn’t find any place more sympathetic than Whistler for the premiere of a movie questioning the motives, ethics and behaviors of sled-dog related businesses.

Not all the same

The first person to appear in the “Sled Dogs” trailer is 27-year-old musher Patrick Beall from Sterling, AK, by way of Bettles and Norman, OK. He talks about how difficult the Iditarod.

A former dog handler for Iditarod champs Mitch and Dallas Seavey, Beall was a rookie musher in this year’s race. Levitt’s film crew followed him along the 1,000 mile trail from Willow to Nome. He thought they were all friends until he saw the film’s trailer, which along with the usual pretty shots of Alaska scenery has that footage of dead huskies piled up in a shipping container.

The voice on the video of the dead dogs appears to be that of retired Alaska State Trooper Terrance Shannigan of “Buddy,” the hero dog fame.  The video of dead sled dogs is about as opposite as one can get to the beauty of people and dogs on the Iditarod Trail.

“What they did to me, I mean, that should show you the type of people,” Beall says in a video posted on the Iditarod Facebook page. “(They)pretend that they are my friends and buy me pizza, ‘compliments of the Canadian government,’ and laugh about it.”

Then Beall’s one-time friends put him in a film that details sled-dog abuse and questions whether the Iditarod contributes to it.

The Canadian Media Fund contributed about $400,000 toward production of the film. Some mushers have called for an investigation into the funding and questioned whether Levitt misrepresented what she planned to do in order to obtain the funding.

Levitt appears to have been less than fully honest with the Iditarod, which helped her gain access to mushers in Alaska. But she’s pretty blunt about the conclusions reached in the documentary.

“This film comes at a critical moment when the public is waking up to the treatment of animals and demanding change,” a press release for the film said. “The audience will be outraged when they discover the legal abuse of ‘man’s best friend’ under the guise of sport and entertainment. This is a timely documentary and a definitive call for action.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Histocially, the Iditarod has weathered these sorts of storms, but this is the biggest blow up since the Humane Society of the United States launched a full-on attack on the race in the early 1990s.

The Iditarod lost major national sponsors that time around, but shifted its attention to a greater emphasis on in-state fundraising and survive.



8 replies »

  1. Of course there is going to be a backlash, from those who fear this film might help cause their chosen “sport” to be shut down. I have a message for them: A sport is engaged in by willing participants. In sport, there is no running other beings beyond their endurance to the point that some end up dragging the bodies of others along. There are no whips, there is no culling; participants aren’t restrained by chains in their off time.

    Bear baiting and dog fighting were considered sport at one time. In fact, as recently as 40 years ago, a leading dog fighter was invited on a talk show and given the star treatment. This is the 21st century. Time to grow up and do your own work in whatever real sport you choose.

    • Sue – you’ve never seen the Iditarod, have you? most of the dogs most of the time (actually the majority nearly all of the time) are willing or over-willing participants. they don’t get dragged along. don’t be silly; that would be horribly inefficient and thus stupid even if someone didn’t care about the dog, and it’s been a long time since any have been run “beyond their endurance.” they get dropped well before that now. and there are no whips. rest assured, nobody is whipping dogs to make them go. there are some other issues, but Iditarod issues isn’t aren’t in the same discussion as “dog fighting.”

      • When dogs who are bred by people to provide a “function” which benefits the people (even though there is no basis in it for survival, nor need for a race), and in this case it is to run, and those dogs are kept on chains when not being raced or trained for the race, of course they are going to appear over-willing. Both sides of that coin equate to cruelty. And, I have seen video and photos of dogs being dragged. People who live in Alaska and have witnessed the race are saying it is still brutal for the dogs. Mushers have admitted in interviews using whips, and even much worse than that. Even just breeding dogs to fulfill one’s desires (and culling still does take place, too), is selfish, while dogs of every kind are dying just because there are too many being born.

        I have experienced the lies and twists that come from virtually every enterprise where animals are USED. The users have all their excuses, rationalizations, justifications, and outright lies down pat. In “law enforcement” where I worked, the departments utilize denials first. Even my own department was saying, even over 30 years ago, “We don’t do that anymore. That was all over with 20 years ago.” And yet, they are STILL hanging and kicking, helicoptering, etc., the K9’s behind the scenes, and now that combined amount of time would make it 50 years since they said they had stopped doing it. It is only when the denials aren’t workiing, because someone got some video of what they do, then the justifications are trotted out.

        And as you are very familiar with, the use of the words “a few bad apples.” And yet, no one in the “sport” is trying to shut down any “bad apples,” because all of it is cruel, and all of it is completely unnecessary.

        Users don’t know what it is to be unselfish, to consider the happiness of other beings over what they want to do.

  2. In every industry you are going to get people that do it right, and people that don’t. It is an injustice to lump everyone together. When I first encountered an award winning sled company I was ignorant and uneducated. I came from Vancouver and could not separate the tragedy that happened there with the rest of the industry. Then I spent time in the kennel and I educated myself. I know these are happy, healthy and very well cared for dogs. I now own 2 retirees that came to me -from day one- happy, healthy and not a single sign anywhere along the way of any mistreatment. These 2 had happy lives before me, coming from a clean, happy kennel – no barrels!
    We check in with the kennel often and my dogs are always happy and excited to go back for a visit – if they were mistreated they would not go bounding back in every chance they’ve had. My 4 year old is an ideal sled dog – strong, fast, social, and thriving – she could have worked for 5-10 more years, and been worth her weight in gold, BUT they knew she liked to run fast and free and was not always excited about working so they put her needs before any of their ‘commercial interests’…these dogs are individuals to them, they are not machines and they are not nameless, they are known and loved. When they are ready to retire the re-homing process is strict, homes are assessed, potential owners are scrutinized- retirees in this kennel are not given away to just anyone.
    As a previous commentor stated: Leviit takes the stupidity and cruelty of a couple tour operators, spins it into propaganda, and paints the entire mushing community with it.
    What Blackfish did for the Aquarium world was right and just in my animal-loving opinion, but I am frightened to think this upcoming documentary is focused on a very different story and dangerously vilifies people that truly love and respect their dogs and their industry, if anything I hope good things come of this in the way of the few out there that need to be shut down being brought to light and having those dogs removed. I also hope that people educate themselves beyond a possibly dangerously misleading and one-sided documentary to see the good, dog-loving, kind and conscientious people that deeply care for their dogs and bring to us, in this modern age, a chance to experience an ages old tradition that is deeply steeped into the blood of a breed that many good people love and cherish.

  3. The Iditarod should end. This treacherous, unnecessary race is exploitative and cruel to the dogs in many ways. It kills dogs just about every year; the total known is 146. Dog deaths average about two per race. They are raced beyond their limits. Six dogs died in 2009. Two dogs (Stiffy and Wyatt, both only three years old) died on “champion” Mackey’s team one year. Many dogs do not finish the race every year. The dogs are dropped due to injury, illness, exhaustion, or not wanting to continue. Mushers finish with only half (or less) of the 16, and some finish with only 5 dogs.

    These dogs are chained (considered inhumane and illegal in many communities) their entire lives to their small, dilapidated enclosures, unable to play or interact with their kennel mates, unless they are training,—all at the behest of their mushers. They are treated as slaves at the ready to perform.

  4. In “Shadows of the Koyukuk”, Huntington states “In the 1920’s and 1930’s, a five dog team was considered large among the Koyukon people.”
    He also speaks how snow-machines replaced dog teams for native trappers back in the early 1960’s up here in Alaska.
    Sidney witnessed the white folks arriving and bringing the “sport” in 1956 to Fairbanks and Anchorage….the first ever sled dog races were short sprint races….
    How did we as a culture come to accept the culling of unwanted dogs for a long distance “race” that continues to fight for their ability to keep thousands of dogs on chains throughout this great state of Alaska….
    Dog-lots, culling, chaining and “sport” mushing are NOT native to this landscape no matter what their advocates claim!

  5. AT&T and Bayer also pulled their sponsorship of the Iditarod over complaints from the animal rights activists. Boycott them, Timberland, IAMS, and all Bayer products.

    • What sport is “native to” ANY landscape, Steve? In North America it would be lacrosse maybe but in Alaska hunting and fishing would be about it. Wrestling of course would have to be thrown in because people have always fought. We should probably not resurrect the game of invading other villages and taking away residents for use as slaves but I’m open to hearing why you think dog mushing is not legitimate even though people have been racing their small teams since the first two guys in a village obtained teams. I know you have bought into all the negative things you’ve heard about sled dog racing and have ignored the positive but you should aim some of your anger at basketball, hockey, football, golf, etc. fans if you are determined to keep non “native” sports out of the state.

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