Sea World Entertainment, the mother company for the popular marine parks of the same name across the southern tier of the United State, this week announced the layoff of more than 320 employees, and the move has some in Alaska worried.
One word: “Blackfish.”
“The movie Blackfish premiered (in 2013) telling the story about the battering and drowning of SeaWorld Orlando Orca Trainer Dawn Brancheau, ” CW6 TV in San Diego reported this week. “Attendance at the parks sank, and in December of 2014 there were more layoffs. The parks never bounced back.
“‘This is a result of the theme park attendance not recovering to the point that they expected they would reach,'” San Diego State business lecturer Wendy Patrick, Ph.D told CW6. She called it the ‘Blackfish backlash.'”
Blackfish not only focused on the death of Brancheau, but on what the filmmakers considered the unacceptable practice of keeping killer whales or orcas in captivity.
Now comes “Sled Dogs,” a movie questioning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the treatment of dogs kept in the sled-dog industry.
“Sled Dogs” has been touted as the “Blackfish”…of the dogsled industry,” wrote Yvette Brend at CBC News.
“Sled Dogs” was funded in large part by the Canadian Media Fund, directed by Toronto film maker Fern Levitt, produced by her husband Arnie Zipursky, and so far shown only once in British Columbia at the Whistler Film Festival where it tied for the honor of best documentary.
Though seen by few people, the movie appears to have galvanized both participants in the world of sled-dog sports and activists opposed to the way some or all sled dogs are treated.
Canadian sled-dog tours have taken the lead in opposition. They see “Sled Dogs” as nothing less than an effort to put them all out of business.
Animals rights activists have embraced the idea that the putting the same tour companies out of business might not be a bad idea.
Unbiased observers who have seen the film are hard to find, but veterinarian Adrian Walton, owner of the Dewdeny Animal Hospital in the community of Maple Ridge just west of Vancouver claims to be one.
Walton was involved in the investigation of a now infamous, 2012 sled-dog cull in Whistler. Fifty-six dogs were shot or had their throats cut after business slumped for Howling Dog Tours Whistler. Walton has also testified as an expert witness in cases of animal abuse.
But he has also led opposition to pit-bull bans in Canada and has no obvious connections to animal-rights organizations.
“You’ve got a choice”
After watching the movie at its premiere in Whistler, he shot a youtube video that is part review and part a message to mushers.
“Please again note, I am for sled dogging,” he said in an email when he sent along a link to an edited version of the video. “I think it’s a wonderful sport.”
Craigmedred.news requested the edited version of a longer video. The video was shorted to cover only what Walton saw in the film and what is something of a message from him to mushers.
“I know you have concerns about this film,” he says in the video. “You have concerns that this film is slanted, that it doesn’t depict, ah, both views. Is it slanted? Yes. But unfortunately the point of view it is presenting is a valid one, and something that you guys do have to deal with.
“I can tell you that (rookie Iditarod musher) Patrick Beall, which a lot of you are very upset is being mistreated by the film. I will tell you right now. He comes across as a completely likeable and caring individual who really cares about his animals. But other aspects of this film do paint your industry negatively, and I think it is something you guys have to deal with.”
Walton goes on to suggest that there is a “dark side” to the sled-dog business, that the situation for dogs can become difficult when big sled-dog businesses suffer financial or staffing problems, and that the movie isn’t going away.
“Look guys, the genie is out of the bottle,” he says. “You have two ways you can deal with this….You can either shoot for fortune and glory at the expense of the animals, or you can deal with this issue and make this a non-story. It’s up to you guys.”
To date, the reaction of the sled-dog community – where many feel both wronged and attacked by “Sled Dogs” even though almost none have seen the film – has been to fight back. The effort has been led by Canadian mushers with the Iditarod staying notably quiet although it reportedly sent Levitt a nasty letter warning her not to show the film in Whistler.
“If Ms. Levitt had set out to show the bad apples in the industry and truly cared about improving care in these kennels for huskies we all would have applauded her,” Hank DeBruin of Winterdance kennel in Ontario wrote in a Facebook post which has now been widely shared, “but she is now claiming the entire mushing world is the same. On her website that she put up for the film a month ago, she called for the ban of all commercial dogsledding and listed 200 names of touring kennels across North America for people to lobby and work to get closed down (that part of her website has now been changed). Winterdance was at the top of the Ontario list, along with many friends of ours who run exceptional kennels and care for & love their dogs as much as any pet owner we know.”
DeBruin is a fan of purebred Siberian huskies, something of a slacker breed when it comes to pace, and is never going to win the Iditaord, though he is now a veteran of the “The Last Great Race.” He finished 48th, fifth from last, in 2012, but he had some history with Iditarod before that.
He was forced out of the 2010 for going too slow, and he got into a bit of a dispute with Iditarod officials in Unalkleet afterward because he didn’t think the dropped dog lot offered his team enough protection from stormy weather while it awaited a flight back to Anchorage. DeBruin ended up camping out with his dogs in the dog lot to make sure their care was up to his standards.
One of the legitimate good guys, he and other Canadian mushers have been urging a broad section of Canadians to contact their member of parliament and push to have the film banned or edited to show what they consider a fair portrayal.
“Dogsledding is one of the most iconic images in Canada. Destination Canada (who promotes Canada to the tourism world) tells us when international visitors think of Canada a dog team is one of the images that is top of their mind,” he writes. “Canada Tourism and all the provinces promote dogsledding as one of the reasons to come to Canada, and yet on the other hand another branch of our Government is set to destroy the industry.”
But they aren’t the only Canadians speaking up.
No sooner did “Sled Dogs” screen than the Vancouver Humane Society jumped up to endorse the film.
“The film challenges the oft-stated claim of the sled dog industry that, because they are bred for endurance, sled dogs are unique ‘athletes’ and can be treated differently from other dogs,” wrote Peter Fricker, the communications director for the Vancouver group in a column for the Huffington Post. “Veterinarians and animal behaviouralists quoted in the film eviscerate this myth, explaining that all dogs have behavioural needs that are compromised by chaining for long periods or being pushed beyond their physical and emotional limits. It becomes clear that sled dog businesses are not celebrating the dogs’ unique hardiness. They are exploiting it.”
Fricker led that column with a connection to Blackfish, which seems to be on its way to becoming a touchstone for animal-rights activists opposed to almost any use of animals in sport or for entertainment.
“The impact of the documentary Blackfish on SeaWorld marine parks and the marine park business in general is well-known. The film was a turning point in attitudes toward marine mammal captivity, with public outrage appearing to grow exponentially every time the film was screened,” Fricker wrote. “Support for SeaWorld dropped considerably and the outlook for the industry looks bleak.
“Now, another powerful documentary may be about to do the same for another animal-dependent business: the commercial sled dog industry.”
The Iditarod starts in Anchorage the first Saturday in March. It will be interesting to see what happens between now and then.