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An Alaska view

sled dogs I

Editor’s note: “Sled Dogs,” the movie that generated plenty of controversy in Alaska when it was released in 2016, slipped in and out of Anchorage quietly on Feb. 19. The single showing attracted 30- to 40-people. One of those in the audience was Peter Porco, a 37-year Alaskan, and former reporter and section editor at the Anchorage Daily News in its glory days. He wrote this review:

 

“Sled Dogs,” a 2016 documentary movie, is a disturbing and highly critical look at what it calls the sled-dog industry. It targets the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as the apex of the industry but condemns current practices in commercial sled-dog breeding, training and racing overall. It follows segments of the 2016 Iditarod but spends about equal screen time on enraging dog-abuse tales from Canada and Colorado.

I saw “Sled Dogs” on a recent Monday evening with about 30 others in a one-time-only screening at the Century 16. The movie will next be shown at 2 p.m. Saturday — first day of the 2018 Iditarod — at the Wilda Marston Theatre in the Z.J. Loussac Library. As of this writing, no other bookings are scheduled.

“Sled Dogs” has been hotly controversial up here since at least Fall 2016 when its trailer was posted online. After seeing the trailer, Iditarod officials and musher Patrick Beall of Oklahoma, whose rookie race in March 2016 forms a narrative thread in the movie, all complained that they were blind-sided because they cooperated with director Fern Levitt under the impression she was making a race-positive film.

With that reception, it’s doubtful any local theatre owner in Alaska would take a chance showing a movie that is all but guaranteed to piss-off Iditarod mushers, their supporters and other Alaskans. Levitt, in fact, had been in negotiations with the Alaska Experience Theatre on Fourth Avenue to screen it during Saturday’s start of the race, but the theatre ultimately declined, its manager telling Levitt that the space was spoken for as a warm-up location for Iditarod volunteers and that showing the film might antagonize a paying client.

What I’ve said so far may give you the idea that the movie is a crude hatchet job. Except it’s not. It’s a well-made, beautifully photographed, sober exposé that calmly, patiently unfolds its argument. “Sled Dogs” carefully and firmly places the ball in the court of those who would defend commercial sled-dog enterprises.

Veterinarians, animal advocates and others in the movie voice their concerns about the cruel lives that sled dogs lead when the TV cameras and our smartphones are not videotaping the start and finish of exciting races. But what drives their point home are bits that capture the appalling misery of animals who are tethered by the score and sometimes by the hundreds, day in and day out, each to their own small patch of turf, in commercial dog kennels. Such scenes take a lot of stomach to watch.

“Sled Dogs” revisits the case of a kennel manager who in 2010 brutally culled some 100 dogs in Whistler, British Columbia, and tells of a group of people who subsequently try but fail to run the Whistler operation as a for-profit kennel while applying only humane standards of treatment. The message: Profits and proper dog care cannot coexist.

The movie takes us to the kennel of a middle-aged musher in Moonstone, Ontario, whose assertion that she is the “boss” of her dogs is apparently an excuse for perhaps unwitting cruelty toward the animals. It’s evident from her reaction when one of them has died overnight that she does care for them, but she’s blithely incompetent as a handler and seems to lack any understanding of dog behavior.

But these two cases are not the Iditarod. Nor is the ethical monstrosity of a huge kennel in Snowmass, Colorado, whose owner, former Iditarod musher Dan MacEachen (who ran the race in the late 1980s, early 1990s), was charged with 8 counts of animal cruelty (all but one were eventually dismissed). (Editor’s note: Since the movie was filmed, MacEachen’s kennel – Krabloonik – has been sold and is under new ownership, and MacEachen has died.)

Actually there is no apparent animal cruelty anywhere in the movie linked explicitly to current Iditarod racers. That is, unless you count the ordeal of the race itself, which is precisely where Levitt wants us to put our focus.

Several of rookie musher Beall’s dogs get sick or injured while on the trail. That, as we all know, is a fairly common occurrence, and rarely does a musher finish the race with the same number of dogs she or he begins with.

Beall, as far as I can tell, does nothing seriously wrong. He’s attentive to his team’s needs and appears to care well for each of the dogs, although he quietly resists a vet’s suggestion that he leave a dog behind that he would rather keep in harness.

But some of his animals get pretty sick. Could it be that the experience of Beall’s dogs — withered (some might say traumatized) by the exertion of a 1,000-mile jaunt across the inhospitable face of Alaska — is the norm? Yes, says “Sled Dogs.” That’s pretty much the way it is for all Iditarod canine racers.

Which is where, I’m guessing, mushers and those who support the race will push back and attack Levitt — for not showing the happier and healthier dogs who finish it. They’re also likely to accuse her of trying to prove Iditarod guilt by association to criminally negligent kennels that are not part of the Iditarod universe — which is a fair argument.

But at least that would be the start of a conversation that race officials need to have with this movie rather than attack it on grounds that they were deceptively lulled into giving access to a filmmaker who did not have their best interests at heart. The Iditarod needs to deal honestly with the issues the film raises and needs to show how their mushers’ dogs are being treated not just during the race but also, especially, in their kennels.

Levitt is not anti-mushing. The movie’s finale shows an amateur musher on his sled pulled by a half-dozen happy dogs through a stunning winter landscape. It’s not the use of sled dogs per se that’s at issue but the demands of a harsh racing environment and the negligent care under which many sled dogs live.

Levitt has made an important movie. The resistance to it is a good sign she’s struck pay-dirt. If what comes out of “Sled Dogs” is even greater attention to sled-dog welfare, greater scrutiny of how the dogs are treated and handled during and after the races, what their kennel lives are like, the filmmaker has done a great service to creatures who have no say in how they’re exploited.

 

Peter Porco gave up journalism for greener pastures. He taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage for 30 semesters as an adjunct instructor in the English and Creative Writing departments. Currently he is working on a play about Dashiell Hammett’s days as editor of a U.S. Army GI newspaper in the Aleutians during World War Two.

 

 

 

 

 

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21 replies »

    • Ramey,
      Good luck on the trail.
      My focus has always been on safety and began in 2010 when Laura and I initiated legislation to ban “Unattended Kennels” in the Valley.
      They were not safe for children or K 9’s.
      Maybe later this Spring we can brain storm ways to make meaningful changes in animal welfare and unify trail users.
      Let’s face it, those of us who find our Zen on the winter trails of AK have more in common than apart.
      Something PETA will never experience in life.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Time to stop living in the world of denial.There are problems with the way ‘some’ kennels operate. This has nothing to do with a film pulling the covers off a much too long defense for something that should morally trouble everyone. There is a problem with the way some people take care of their dogs.Having animals cannot be about entitlement or the often heard living the dream.I believe the majority of sled dog owners are committed to providing a high level of care. However, it is a dishonesty to not acknowledge that some dogs live in a world where minimal standards of care is the norm. This debate has gone on for too long. I haven’t seen the film and it may have inaccuracies but it shouldn’t have taken this film for all of us who love sled dogs to get off our asses and call a spade a spade when you witness sub-standard conditions.Th e real challenge is how to get rid of the people who neither have the time nor money to properly care for their dogs. I didn’t write this to add to the debate here.Because really there is no debate. Help get rid of the wannabes and support efforts of start an effort to make things better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess I’d like to know who you are talking about, Frank. A lot of generalities getting tossed around, not a lot of specifics.

      The film doesn’t do squat but draw nasty inferences using outliers as evidence. I see guys like you and Schandelmeir casting stone’s, but so far it’s just the amorphous “they” that really could mean anyone but you.

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      • or it could mean the guy who didn’t pay for the dogs he “bought” from a fellow musher on loan but can’t give back when asked for their return because “I shot them. They weren’t any good.” or the one who beat a dog to death to teach his girlfriend a lesson. she says he also later assaulted her. i talked to her. i talked to other women who told similar stories. i didn’t write about it because they didn’t want it written about. many in the Iditarod community knew. nobody did anything. it didn’t stop they guy from entering more Iditarods. yes, these people are outliers. they are not representative of Iditarod dog mushers. but they exist. maybe Iditarod could help by setting a standard for moral and ethical behavior and telling people who do this crap that “you’re not going to run the Iditarod.” other sports do that. maybe these people would find something other than dogs with which to get involved. my observations in a lifetime spent in Alaska and around dogs is that being around dogs does not bring out the best in people with anger management problems. God knows there’s been a dog or two i wanted to beat within an inch of its life. i didn’t do it because i’m just too damn practical. it’s not a rational training method. break a dog’s spirit and all you usually end up with is a dog that’s a piece of shit.

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      • Those are good points Craig, but as I told Frank, anecdotes put like that cast ALL mushers under a cloud of suspicion because no single person is being explicitly called out, just a bunch of “things need to change” comments being tossed around without specifics. I agree that we need to take out the trash, hell, I’ll be the first person to throw the bad actors under the bus once we identify beyond a shadow of a doubt who they are, but in the context of this ongoing conversation, relevant to the race being forcibly slowed down/top mushers who’re running their kennels in an amoral fashion etc, all that’s happening is that the top drivers in the sport who are the most visible to the public are left shouldering the entire load of negative public suspicion and perception.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “Help get rid of the wannabes and support efforts of start an effort to make things better.” How? Who decides who is a wannabe and who is legit? Who decides who is having a rough patch and who is committing ongoing neglect. How do we get rid of people? How do I have any influence on a kennel in Ontario and vice versa? If I am driving along and see a field full of neglected horses what are my options to effect change? Not many in Yukon. And if they’re sled dogs and not horses my options aren’t any different. I can try to appeal to them as a fellow musher, I can offer to lend a hand, drop off some food, but if they are determined to be resistant then what? Talking, posting, educating about best practices all help but when push comes to shove how do we actually get rid of them?

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      • yes, and it think keeping anything bigger than a toy poodle in an apartment in the city and failing to exercise dogs regularly is inhumane, and stuffing them with treats until they look more like pumpkins than dogs? that’s not just inhumane; that’s cruel.

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  2. Levitt is a lot like Rogoff in that she will lie to both sides to get what she wants.
    Her distaste for Alaskan culture is apparent.
    Although I am not a fan of commercial mushing or the Iditarod, I feel a PETA activist from Toronto has no place influencing policy in Alaska.
    In the end all the “man haters” will be alone in their corner on this issue with no meaningful changes made to the welfare of Sled Dogs.

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    • So, what you’re saying is that Fern only cares about Fern, that she lies and manipulates people. It sounds like she actually doesn’t care about sled dogs and just used their plight to try to become famous.

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      • I doubt Fern would last one cold bivy out on the trail and she has never even seen the Iditarod trail she speaks so much of…she only sent her film crew out while she coordinated the effort from her plush hotel room.
        I for one am tired of foreign hypocrisy affecting my life in AK.
        The only reason that this film is being promoted is that Levitt signed a pac with PETA to allow them to profit from the attention and distribution.

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    • Steve, it’s interesting that Fern has a contract with PETA. That organization lies a great deal. A bunch of lying liars!

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  3. I am frankly shocked that the movie (I have seen it) can be viewed as an even remotely good documentary. The scenes are good, the camera work is breathtaking at times. But from a content and depth-of-argument perspective, I feel as if I’d get a rather poor grade if I turned such a thing in for even a high-school level class.

    Many arguments in the film are built on just one datapoint, and weak ones at that. For instance…yes a group of people tried to run a for-profit kennel in Whistler, by what they deemed humane standards, and failed to make it work. That is *one* group that failed at that endeavor. The film didn’t really even establish that any of the folks that tried had any experience in running a profitable business of any type, whether with animals or not. Businesses fail for lots of reasons. The conclusion (that it’s generally impossible to make a profit while being humane) reached by that one datapoint is very weakly supported, IMO. Better would have been to develop the backgrounds of the folks that tried and failed. Better would have been to actually look at some kennels that *are* profitable, and establish the reasons why.

    On looking at other commercial kennels, the examples are old. Dan Maceachon hasn’t owned the snowmass kennel in years. A lot of things changed since that whole debacle, but the film is very weak in even identifying what has changed, and what has not changed. Folks in the film like Doug (can’t remember his last name) that are represented as being familiar with the situation have not lived in Snowmass for *years*. How could they possibly be familiar with anything that approaches the current state of things?

    Yes the film finishes with a “rec” musher out with his dogs….great, that’s awesome, but it comes across as a token acknowledgement of mushing, so the film’s makers can say “we’re not anti-mushing” with a straight-face. It’s nothing more than that A better support of the “we are not anti-mushing” stance would provide real-life examples of where the film-makers feel the “line” is with respect to racing, and/or commercial operation, via real-life examples of folks that are actually doing those things. Those are all missing from the film.

    My take on the film is that it did a great job of starting with a pre-determined narrative, and then cherry-picking some examples….some of them very old, others not well-developed…to support that narrative, and then hiding all of that behind good cinematography. Reminds me very much of high-schoolish approach on the last hour to getting a paper written. My 12th grade English teacher would likely have failed me if I’d turned in similarly supported argument to *anything*, even if she ultimately agreed with my argument at face-value.

    -Thad

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    • certainly have to agree on the business aspect. overhead is high on any animal operation. don’t see this as a whole lot different from running a commercial stable. to make it work, you have to more than a few months of revenue. would be interesting to know, to start with, if the Whistler business was running summer cart tours or just winter sled tours, and it would have been interesting to pull in one of the Alaska glacier businesses that seem to be doing well financially.

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  4. Viewing of this movie coincided with my negotiations with a Minnesota film company planning on coming to Denali to shoot a multi-day backcountry mushing trip with our company, for a well-known TV show (not reality garbage). There was a time that I was on a conference call with a few from the company, addressing their concerns about the negative vibes coming from the movie. One of the show hosts had one million twitter followers, and there were many followers of the show on Facebook. PR was a big concern. I explained it all to them as I do so many times to our lodge guests when touring our kennels in the summer…mushers have different standards and relationships with their dogs, and they range to both extremes. You cannot paint them all with the same brush. I told this film company that you can compare what we do with our dogs to what’s done in the horse world. There is the horse racing world, where things are done competitively, and either clean or not. There is the people with horses that do pack trips, hunt, and explore the backcountry. There are people with horses who have them as active “pets”. Our business is between the backcountry and pets, we have found what works for us. Working guide dogs doing amazing tours into Denali, that have the luxury of either retiring in the yard to wander around and visit with guests in the summer, or retire to a good home (usually someone that has done a mushing trip with us). We do have seniors in Spokane and Northern California now. I am not saying this is what all musher do or should do, it’s what we do. No culling pups, best vet care, and loving homes cradle to grave. The success of our commercial venture allows us the extra money to deal with the costs of the seniors. Again, it’s what works for us. This movie may have redeeming value, further cleaning up some ugly aspects of dog mushing, but it’s sort of a pain in the ass for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jon: so hopefully what you’re saying is the movie is still on? hate to see you lose that deal over someone else’s documentary. and i can’t tell whether your last line is a reference to the mess created for you personally by “Sled Dogs” or having to work with movie makers. most lodge operators and guides i know in Alaska have generally described the movie experience as “a pain in the ass.”

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      • Was a TV episode and it all went well. Film crews are generally a pain, but this one was good. We worked with The Daily Show also a few years back and that was great. Some others, not so great.

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    • That of course would all require that the film’s makers were really truly trying to dig into the question, rather than to weakly support whatever they had predetermined the question’s answer to be.

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