The director of the controversial though yet-to-be seen film “Sled Dogs” is pushing back at accusations she misled the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race into helping her film crew follow a rookie musher on the trail from Anchorage to Nome.
“I didn’t mislead anyone,” Toronto, Canada, based Fern Levitt said in a lengthy Thanksgiving Day interview. “I’m a filmmaker. I pointed the camera to get answers. That’s what a documentary does.”
Patrick Beall – a 27-year-old musher who grew up in Norman, Olka., spent time in wild Bettles, Alaska, and now calls Sterling, AK, home – plays a key role in the movie. Based on the movie trailer, he has blasted the film as misleading and says he feels betrayed by a film crew who treated him like a friend on the trail only to put him in a documentary that takes a harsh look at the business of sled dogs.
Levitt said Beall was tapped for the film because he is “warm and friendly. Patrick is a terrific guy. I could tell what a wonderful person he is.
“I think he comes across (in the film) as a warm, loving person, which is what he is. I think he cares about the dogs.”
Levitt said she wanted someone like Beall in the film to illustrate that mushers aren’t bad people. But she admits to seriously questioning what drives people to do Alaska’s world famous, 1,000-mile, sled-dog race.
“Patrick, he really wanted to race the Iditarod,” she said. “He really wanted to race. He really looked at what the myth is instead of looking at what the truth is. He believed what he wanted to believe.”
The Iditarod myth, as Levitt sees it, is that the dogs are superstar athletes who lead a superstar life and enjoy royal treatment when not on the trail. A television advertisement for NAPA Auto Parts now airing in Alaska features Iditarod defending champ Dallas Seavey from Willow and his dog “Hero” cruising the store like the best of companions and then hopping in the cab of Seavey’s truck to drive away.
“In the Iditarod it’s all about the dogs,” The Last Great Race says.
Levitt questions that. She says the race, and the sled-dog business in general, is much more about the people involved and the money.
“We seem to put money ahead of everything,” she said. “We’ve put the welfare of dogs behind making money.
“Why the hell are people doing this? So someone can make a buck.
“(Iditarod) is just a great, big contest now. It’s about trying to become a celebrity.
“It’s become a very big race. There’s money and prestige. People go in there wanting to win. The dogs there are not their foremost concern.
“When they say ‘they’ love it, who loves it?
“I’m not saying there aren’t good mushers….I have no problem with people sledding with their dogs. I think it’s beautiful.”
But at some point, Levitt said, when mushers get into the business of “dog farming” – be it to create a big pool of dogs for a tour business or from which to build an Iditarod-winning team – the dogs cease to be dogs and become instead parts in a machine.
“When you have so many dogs, they become a commodity,” she said; they become more like livestock than pets.
In talking to Levitt, it is clear her personal belief and thus most likely her yet-to-be-seen movie, largely focuses on the question of whether dogs are like other farm animals or deserve some sort of special treatment because of their long, close association with humans.
“I don’t know what it is about dogs, but they are able to reach us in unexplainable ways,” she said. “They make our lives better.”
She believes this sets dogs apart from other animals.
This is not a new debate. The idea that dogs are in some way family goes way back.
As Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, the author of “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dogsled,” wrote more than 100 years ago after being forced to put down a favored sled-dog that had been fatally injured by a horse:
“All day as I trudged or trotted on snowshoes and now off, as the trail varied in badness, that dog was in my mind and his loss upon my heart, the feel of his tongue upon my check. It takes the close companionship between a man and his dogs in this country, travelling all the winter long, winter after winter, through the bitter cold and the storm and darkness, through the long, pleasant days of the warm sunshine of approaching spring, sharing labour and sharing ease, sharing privation and sharing plenty; it takes this close companionship to make a man appreciate a dog. As I reckoned it up, Nanook had fallen just short of pulling my sled ten thousand miles. If he had finished this season with me, he would have done fully that, and I intended to pension him after this winter, to provide that so long as he lived he should have his fish and rice every day.”
There is a long history of people forming bonds with dogs unlike those with other animals. Historically, dogs like Nanook lived a tough life because everyone in Alaska at the time lived a tough life, but they were often part of a family of people and dogs. Levitt questions whether this has given way to a new world where dogs are no longer part of a team with men (or women), but engines to be harnessed to a race sled until spent and then thrown aside.
“They breed and breed and breed and cull and cull and cull,” she said of some of today’s dog mushers. “Dogs are expensive. So they get rid of the ones that don’t make the grade. I think it’s cruel.”
Fair-minded people can debate that last observation at length. Why should a dog humanely put down be considered any different from the cow killed to provide the beef for a McDonald’s “Quarter Pounder” or the pig executed to make the bacon?
But then again, what dog owner hasn’t felt like Stuck upon having to put a dog down?
On some level, this all gets very personal for Levitt, a self-confessed animal lover now taking care of a “rescue” horse, a “rescue” cat and a second “rescue” dog. The first rescue dog is buried in the roots of the documentary “Sled Dogs.”
In 2010, Levitt took a dog-sled ride at an Ontario, Canada, tour business.
“It was marvelous,” she said.
But after the ride, she wanted to know where the dogs went when not working. The business owner took her to his dog lot. Levitt estimates he had 300 dogs on chains, some “not looking so good.”
“I had no idea this sort of thing was even legal,” Levitt said. A film maker who had done several previous documentaries about human rights, she said the dog lot struck her as looking a lot like a canine “concentration camp.”
“I asked him if I could take one of the dogs home,” she said. “He told me he had to cull about 30. I didn’t even know what cull meant.”
The dictionary definition is simple: “to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals; also: to hunt or kill (animals) as a means of population control.”
A nine-year-old dog named Slater was saved from this fate by Levitt. She took him home, and they started adjusting to each other. He was not the most social dog.
“He was afraid of touch,” Levitt said. “He wouldn’t chase squirrels. It was like he’d been abused. I felt sick about dog sledding and wouldn’t do it again.”
A year later, the Whistler, British Columbia, Canada sled-dog massacre hit the news after dog-handler Robert Fawcett filed for mental health benefits. Fawcett shot “100 sled dogs (and) complained to WorkSafeBC B.C. that he suffered post traumatic stress after the slaughter and was granted compensation,” The Province reported at the end of January 2011.
“It started gnawing at me,” Levitt said. She started thinking about the plight of sled dogs every time she looked at the one she saved.
“He was an incredible dog,” she said. “I tried to make his life better. We went everywhere together. He’d go up to homeless people and put his head in their laps. This dog who was afraid of touch, and he would go and do this.”
Then came another case of sled dog abuse, this one involving Iditarod veteran Dan MacEachen near Aspen, Colo. Another in the sled-dog tour business, MacEachen was charged with eight counts of animal abuse related to neglect.
“State animal-care investigators in October questioned whether all of the nearly 250 dogs at Krabloonik (Kennels) were being fed appropriately,” the Denver Post reported in December 2013. “An inspection in October by Colorado’s Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act program found that up to 40 of the dogs had nutrition concerns….
“Former Krabloonik employees have accused MacEachen of allowing dogs to freeze to death and of fatally shooting unwanted dogs, which is legal.
“In 1988, MacEachen did not contest an animal-cruelty charge accusing him of breaking bones in a dog’s face, according to state records. Upon his completion of a year’s probation, the charge was dismissed, and MacEachen was allowed to withdraw his no-contest plea.”
MacEachen finished 17th in the 1988 Iditarod. He did not run in 1989. He returned in 1990 and ran every year from then through 1993. He was never publicly sanctioned by Iditarod, and it unknown whether anyone within the organization was aware of the cruelty charge in Colorado. MacEachen died this year.
A humane industry?
By the time MacEachen’s case went to court, Slater was dead of kidney disease, and Levitt was starting to wonder about the ethics of the people in the sled-dog business. She started looking for ways to do a documentary.
“The purpose was to go find out ‘is this a humane industry?'” she said.
In 2015, Slater-Brody Productions – a company named for the aforementioned Slater and Levitt’s second adopted sled-dog, Brody – secured $405,000 in funding from the Canada Media Fund to pursue that question.
Filming began in British Columbia, Colorado and Alaska. Levitt said the Iditarod was an obvious part of the film because it is the biggest event in the world of mushing, and because it is connected in so many ways, both directly and indirectly, to the world of sled dogs as a whole.
The filmmaker says she wanted “to get both sides of the story. It’s not up to me to tell the audience what to believe.”
But it’s pretty clear in talking to Levitt that she came away from the project with a belief.
Before “Sled Dogs,” she confessed, “I never thought about them. I thought about me. I learned more about me (in this process). I learned more about human nature.”
The project, she said, changed her view about animals. Before “Sled Dogs,” she went swimming with the dolphins and thought it was cute. She has a different opinion now. Some research indicates that while the swim might be fun for the people involved, it’s not necessarily fun for the dolphins, Levitt said.
She wonders if the situation isn’t much the same for humans and their sled dogs.
Yes, she concedes, lots of Iditarod dogs lunge at their harnesses at the start of the race and act like they really want to get to Nome, but look how many call it quits along the way.
Iditarod champion Seavey started the race with 16 this year. There were only six left in his team when he reached Nome in a record time of 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes. The rest of the dogs were dropped back along the trail because of injures or physical or mental exhaustion.
“Sled Dogs” previews at the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 3. The debate surrounding the movie has already started and is expected to continue long past the premiere.
Inside a dog’s head
The movie’s press kit offers this statement from the director:
“Most of the public sees commercial dog sledding sites on the internet with pictures of happy dogs. It is easy to believe that sled dogs are different from pet dogs, that they are well looked after, that they ‘love what they do’ and ‘live to run.’ Like everybody else, I had no reason to disbelieve the promotional material.
“My film became an open quest to find out the truth about the sled dog industry. Without an agenda, we followed the stories as we found them, filming what was in front of us.
“People wanted to believe the myths about the sled dogs, so they could run the Iditarod or own a commercial sled dog business, never really questioning if what they were doing was fair to the animals. They often wanted to see their industry through rose-coloured glasses, ignoring testimony from experts because they wanted to continue their dream and their livelihood. But all too often, the treatment of many dogs in the sled dog industry is both cruel and inhumane.”
There are those who will argue Levitt had an agenda, but that’s really somewhat irrelevant because the biggest problem with Levitt’s view is the biggest problem with the view of sled-dog fans and advocates. Both sides interpret the dog’s view from a human perspective because it is impossible to obtain the view from inside a dog’s head.
“Would you want your dog to live like an Iditarod dog?” Levitt asks near the end of the interview.
That is a difficult question to answer for anyone who has spent time around the Iditarod because the response is both yes and no depending on the dog driver. The Iditarod is a collection of stupid old dog-lovers, as the late musher Jerry Austin once described one of his friends, and hard-driving disciplinarians to whom a dog is a horse is a mule is an ox.
A sled dog is to the latter a draft animal bred, born, fed and maintained to do its job. Nothing less. Nothing more. That’s likely not the view of the majority of people who own dogs in the U.S. today, but who is to say it is the wrong view?