Director finally talks


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.








3 replies »

  1. Interesting the sled dog on the chain was taken off of your flyer…
    I think that this film is not only about the “social conditions” of the animals in the movie, but a look at the “culture” of corporate commercial mushing that funds it perpetually.
    The take away for the audience will be whether or not commercial operations shall be allowed to continue to breed, place on a chain for life, run dogs to death or near death for sport, kill unwanted dogs as the commercial musher sees fit, etc.
    Many folks understand the history of sled dogs in Alaska, but not the current dog farm and chaining mentalities.
    Ultimately, the folks interested in helping these animals need the USDA to lift the exemption that excludes sled dogs from the Animal Welfare Act….and contact business sponsors of dog farms to end funding.

    • My observation has been that mushers now treat their dogs much better than in the past. Most mushers now treat their dogs almost as pets and they are definitely not raced to near death. I would suggest watching a race and watching the finish. The dogs are healthy, happy, and well-fed. I imagine there are dogs who don’t make the cut that aren’t as fortunate but the racing dogs are for the most part well loved, well cared for, and part of the family.

      • some are well loved and well cared for, Lindsey Vaughan. some, in my opinion, would even be considered over-loved and pampered. others are more commodities. there’s a broad range of how mushers treat their dogs. and a race, any race, probably isn’t the best place to get an idea of who is treating what dogs how. everyone today is pretty well schooled in the PR of how to behave at races and of PR in general. the honesty of this kennel operator in Ontario isn’t the sort of thing you see every day: “The OSPCA (Ontario SPCA) told (Shani) Ride that the four dogs had to have veterinary care, but she refused. ‘I said, ‘I’m not going to do that, I’m already treating them and I feel my treatment was fine. I’ve dealt with these injuries before. Taking all four of those dogs to the vet was going to cost me in the thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, I love these animals but this is a business. I said if you feel my care isn’t proper for them, I will have them euthanized. Businesswise, it doesn’t make sense for me to put thousands of dollars into these dogs when the unfortunate reality is that a new sled dog would cost me $200.'” it’s a complicated world out there. Shani Ride is not alone. her business decision, which i fully understand, isn’t any different than the decision made by some race mushers (i was going to say “competitive mushers” but that isn’t a good description because so many in Alaska races aren’t) who recognize a dog just doesn’t have the speed and needs to be replaced. some of them find a home for the reject. some take the dog to the local pound. some pursue other options. and then some go buy a dog from somebody like Frank Rich who has a huge dog-yard full of sled dogs because, despite what some people will tell you, pedigree isn’t all that important in sled-dog world. it’s all about performance as more than a few mushers who have put together winning teams made up of pound dogs can testify. all of this plays into the very complicated world of sled dogs. i’d like to see the movie. i’m curious at whether it captures any of the dichotomies, though i suspect that it doesn’t. sled-dog world is probably just too complicated to get into a movie. it’s every bit as good as some people believe, and probably as bad as other people believe.

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