The director of a controversial, though yet-to-screen movie about the sled-dog business has emerged from hiding to tell the CBC that most people have no idea what goes on in mushing kennels.
Toronto director Fern Levitt told reporter Yvette Brand that her interest in sled dogs sprang from a visit to a sled-dog tour company in northern Ontario in 2010.
As Brand tells it, Levitt “saw hundreds of chained dogs and learned 30 were about to be culled,” ie. killed.
An investigation into the sled-dog business began and the documentary “Sled Dogs” followed. It is set to premiere Dec. 3 at the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia, Canada.
Mushers from Alaska and across the country have been pressuring the Festival to drop the film from its program, but the protests seem to be doing little but sparking interest in the movie.
Brand’s story treats both side of this issue fairly.
“Professional dog handlers call the film — which is punctuated by the haunting jingle of a chafing dog chain — an unfair indictment of dog-sledding, an iconic and long-glorified northern practice,” the second paragraph of the story notes.
In the story, Levitt confesses she didn’t like the idea of dogs being culled and adopted one of them to save its life. After that, the issue became personal.
The “adopted dog, Slater, was skittish, afraid of human touch and only survived for three more years after having spent the previous nine years on a chain,” Brand reported.
“‘It’s not that I think all dog mushers are evil or cruel,’ Brand quotes Levitt saying. ‘I think we want to believe the myth that these dogs are different. [But] they are just like any other dog, and they have the needs of any other dog.'”
The story leaves the impression the film focuses heavily on the social lives of dogs and what constitutes humane treatment in that regard. That’s tricky territory. Some people thinks dogs should live in the house and sleep on the couch. Others believe dogs should live outside in a kennel or on a chain, and sleep in a dog house.
The story largely dodges the issue of Alaska mushers who contend they were misled by Levitt cozying up to them during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race only to put them in a film that most believe portrays mushing, including the “grueling” Iditarod, in a negative light.
“I went looking for the truth,” Levitt says. “I interviewed those who are for the industry and those who are against it. It will be up to the audience to decide.”
That may be true, but it is pretty clear from the film clips that have emerged to date that “Sled Dogs” leans toward those who are against the industry, which does in cases keep dozens of dogs tied up in what Levitt describes as a scene that looks “like a concentration camp of dogs.”
The difference is the dogs are not being kept there awaiting execution. They are well fed, not starved. Their health is cared for, not ignored. And in the best cases, they are regularly taken off their chains to play with people and go for a run.
As some mushers like to point out, sled dogs aren’t “companion animals,” they’re working animals. At the end of the day, the question is not whether they should be treated like pets, which appears Levitt’s view, but what constitutes humane treatment for animals that are involved in a what is essentially a farming business.
That is a difficult question in a couple of countries – the U.S. and Canada – where most people don’t really know where their food comes from and don’t want to know.