This story was updated and corrected on April 27, 2017
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is long over, but “Sled Dogs” the movie lives on with director Fern Levitt showing no signs of buckling to accusations the film is purely propaganda.
Levitt’s defense of her documentary is simple: We pointed the camera; the camera caught what was there; so be it.
Whether what it caught reflects negatively or positively on the Iditarod could depend in large part on the eyes of the viewer. After watching the film, there is only one thing about which there can be no doubt: the movie does a number on sled-dog touring businesses.
The late Dan MacEachan from Snowmass, Colo., the owner of Krabloonik kennel there and a veteran of six Iditarods, comes across as arrogant and largely uncaring when confronted with animal abuse charges in his home state, but Iditarod musher Patrick Beall, a rookie who the camera followed north along the 1,000-mile trail to Nome, in 2015 is pretty much the opposite.
Granted, there is a scene in which an Iditarod veterinarian suggests the then 27-year-old graduate of Oklahoma University drop a dog with an elevated heart rate only to have Beall decide the dog is good to go to the next checkpoint. These are tough calls that get made in the Iditarod all the time.
Sometimes mushers do know the dogs better than the volunteer vets who show up for only a couple of weeks to work the race. And Beall’s short discussion with the vet almost gets lost in the grandeur of Alaska.
From a purely visual standpoint, “Sled Dogs” is nothing short of beautiful. It does a superb job of capturing the excitement of Iditarod week in Alaska and the majestic sweep of a March wilderness where the landscape is still cloaked in white but the first real, bright, welcoming sun has begun to return.
After the trailer of “Sled Dogs” hit the internet in November, the Anchorage newspaper said Beall and others claimed to have been “duped” into participating in the film.
Beall, Anchorage Dispatch News reporter Tegan Hanlon wrote, said “that he agreed to participate in the film because Levitt, the director, told him that she wanted to make a documentary about a musher’s first journey to Nome….Beall had qualified for the 2016 Iditarod and was planning to run a group of 2-year-old dogs from Mitch Seavey’s kennel.
“Beall said Levitt and her film crew visited him twice in Sterling before following him along the 2016 Iditarod trail. He said the crew always gave him compliments about his care of the dogs and bought him dinner after filming. Levitt told him he was well-spoken and handsome, calling herself his ‘mom away from home,’ according to Beall.
“‘That whole time, we were absolutely good friends,’ Beall said. ‘I enjoyed their company. I thought they were really cool and they were always really enthusiastic about what they were filming. But they completely took advantage of my genuine trust.'”
What is in the film does not exactly support Beall’s claim he was duped. He is clearly a cooperative player in the filming, and his run to Nome looks pretty much like a normal Iditarod, rookie race.
The film doesn’t make him look bad. Then again, it doesn’t quite make him look heroic, either, which is how a few mushers might like to see themselves. Beall simply looks like a guy in pursuit of a challenging adventure.
What surrounds his Iditarod run is a different matter.
There is the MacEachen affair in Snowmass; a well-documented sled-dog massacre in Whistler, British Columbia, where an estimated 100 sled dogs were executed after the Winter Olympics when business fell off at Howling Dog Tours Whistler; and the rather odd kennel operation of an elderly female tour operator in Ontario who trains pups who don’t want to run (an oddity in and of itself) by the dragging them around on a leash while they pull weights, and who one morning finds the stiff, snow-covered carcass of a dead dog in her dog lot.
The whole operation appears such a train wreck it’s hard to avoid wondering if it was staged for the movie, but Levitt said it was not and took offense. To even think that, she said, is to question “my professionalism and credibility with no basis for that.”
And then there are the dead dogs of Willow’s Frank Rich filmed piled up in a Conex shipping container. Of that, Hanlon wrote this:
“Darla Erskine, animal care officer for the Mat-Su Borough, is particularly concerned about the use of footage from Willow, showing a pile of immobile dogs in a dark Conex. She said those dogs belonged to Frank Rich, a Montana Creek dog breeder who had about 170 neglected huskies seized from his property in 2011. Rich has never raced the Iditarod.
”’It gives the sled dog people a bad name when it’s false information,’ Erskine said. ‘That particular shot, it upsets me. It gives people the wrong impression.'”
The report that Rich never raced the Iditarod is true, but he was not some disconnected outlier. He was known to many in the Willow mushing community and in 2006 was among the sponsors of a musher in the Junior Iditarod.
According to friends, he was a decent guy who just ran into trouble trying to care for too many dogs.
After he was charged with animal abuse in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in 2012, he told a state judge his dog breeding operation got out of control.
“…He found his dogs produced puppies people wanted to own,” the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reported from his trial. “(But) if an animal wasn’t one he could sell, he’d hold onto it, increasing the number of animals in his care….”
That created big problems when Rich lost his job. Pretty soon, he had dozens of dogs on short rations. By the time Mat-Su animal control showed up at his property, there were 168 malnourished and dehydrated, and another 19 dead.
“Rich said he was afraid to reach out to the borough’s Animal Care and Regulation department because of a previous experience where, after a kennel inspection, he’d been ordered to get his numbers down and wound up picking 30 dogs to euthanize,” the Frontiersman’s Andrew Wellner reported.
“”I could only get to 24, I couldn’t pick a 25th dog,’ he said, choking up.”
In a wide-ranging telephone interview on Monday from Los Angeles, where “Sled Dogs” was showing at the Newport Beach Film Festival, Levitt intimated that she doesn’t think of dog mushers – or at least most of them – as bad people, but does think some of them let their own desires get in the way of what is best for their dogs.
She picked Beall as one of the main characters for her documentary because of his apparent compassion and intelligence.
“I wanted people to see themselves through him,” she said. “If I’d wanted to find some gruff, uneducated, cranky musher, it would have been easy.”
But, she said, that’s exactly what she didn’t want.
Beall, “he’s us,” she said. “That’s why we chose him. He’s smart and compassionate and caring, and still his needs come before the dogs.”
Levitt freely admits she thinks it is wrong Iditarod dogs sometimes lose as much as 30 percent of their body fat during the race and teeter on the edge of exhaustion. She finds it hard to believe that more mushers aren’t bothered by this, but at the same time understands.
“We want to believe what we want to believe,” she said. That street, unfortunately, runs two ways.
There are those who watch humans run or fat-bike themselves to exhaustion in the Iditarod Trail Invitational who might not see the dogs all that different from the people, but Levitt argues there is a big difference.
People return to comfortable lives. Dogs return to what she calls “concentration camps.” Levitt has major issues with dogs on chains, and the movie definitely reflects that.
She firmly believes chaining is inherently inhumane though the scientific jury remains out on that subject. Viewers of “Sled Dogs” who share Levitt’s views on chaining will likely find that part of the film upsetting; those unbothered by tethered dogs might not notice.
Levitt did admit to the tiniest of fears that the movie might, strangely enough, boost the Iditarod.
“It is pretty,” she said. “Alaska is beautiful. You hope people will understand the subtleties. You hope the subtleties aren’t too subtle, but all we did was just shoot what was in front of us.”
Both the Iditarod and Canada kennel operators were at one time threatening to sue to try to stop “Sled Dogs” from screening, but the threats have faded.
“I had my eyes opened,” Levitt said. “I think I learned more about human beings making this film. The Iditarod has threatened to come after me.”
She says now she wishes the organization had sued. It would have been good publicity for the film, which opens in theatres across Canada in May and hits the U.S. in June.
“We’re on a theatrical tour in North America now,” said Levitt, who said that after a round on big screens the film will be available on Netflix.
“Everybody who has seen this film has been shocked,” she said, and parts of the film are indeed likely to be as troubling to a member of Ducks Unlimited or Safari Club International as to a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (PETA).
But other parts are harder to judge.
‘The money-making machine known as the Alaskan Iditarod is perhaps the biggest hurdle on the road to achieving better treatment for sled dogs as it is a financial pillar in the Northern community and a tradition that is well loved by mushers and spectators alike,” the promo for the movie at Eye on Canada proclaims.
“Thousands of tourists flock each year to watch ‘the last great race’ as teams of sled dogs run over a thousand miles across Mother Nature’s harshest landscape. Supporters of the Iditarod claim that sled dogs are ‘canine athletics (sic)’ and love the challenge of this sport. They claim that sled dogs are born and bred to race and are ‘different’ from other dogs. Animal rights critics along with former mushers fervently disagree and claim that these statements are used to justify animal abuse and keep an misinformed public in the dark.”
The movie does, in subtle ways, make some or maybe even most of those arguments, but the pitch, at least as directly regards Iditarod, is veiled enough some people might lose it in the onscreen beauty of the 49th state.
“Under all that beauty, it’s nothing more than animal abuse,” Levitt said. “These dogs are over-stressed. There are sick dogs, dehydrated dogs. They lose the urge to eat and drink. Look at their sunken eyes.”
There are people sure to look at the film and see what Levitt sees. It reportedly got a very favorable reception at a showing at the California headquarters of PETA while Levitt was there, but how the movie is perceived by the broader public remains to be seen.
Dogs do struggle in the Iditarod. Some of them do push to the point of exhaustion. Those are realities. Where the big issue arises is at what point this crosses the line from healthy competition in the style of the Tour de France or the Race Across America to animal abuse.
“I lost about 26 or 27 pounds” in the latter race, Johnny Goldberg told the authors of “Bike for Life: How to ride to 100.” There is no doubt he was dehydrated at times, too, and took on that hollow-eyed look of the all athletes who push themselves to extremes.
“Once runners get about 12 hours in, you will also see hollow-eyed shells of people stumbling around in a stupor,” Kirsty Reade wrote of the Endure24 in The Guardian’s running blog just last year.
The question in endurance racing of any kind really isn’t what is – it’s all brutal by the standards of sedentary Westerners – but what is abuse. Levitt fairly captures the what is. The what is abuse is left hanging, at least as regards the Iditarod.
The treatment of dogs in the off-season, the warehousing of dozens upon dozens of dogs at sled-dog tour operations, the executions of unwanted dogs at those businesses, the economics of making money off a sled-dog business and still treating the dogs fairly are other matters. And Levitt comes down pretty heavy there.
CORRECTION: After this story was first published, Levitt texted to say she had misstated herself in describing the weight loss of Iditarod dogs during the race. It can be up to 30 percent of body fat.