Musher threatens legal action over Sled Dogs documentary
British Columbia and Alberta sled dog handlers say a soon-to-be-released film billed as an expose of the northern dog sledding industry is misleading and they want it to be removed from a film festival.
Sled dogs was introduced as the Black fish — a documentary film that exposed the cruel treatment of an orca at SeaWorld in San Diego – from the dog sledding industry.
The film documents the life of racing dogs behind the scenes of the 1,000-mile Iditarod. Over the years, at least 140 dogs have died in the race.
But handlers say Sled Dogs paints an unfair picture of the industry. They want it removed from the Whistler Film Festival lineup before the Dec. 3 premiere.
“I threatened legal action because no one from the movie had spoken to me, seen my kennel or met my dogs,” said Megan Routley of Kingmik Dogled Tours, based near Banff National Park.
Routley was furious about the film’s trailers, which she said were linked to an activist site calling for a “boycott of all things sled dog.”
She argues that the film portrays the industry as cruel and inhumane, showing misleading scenes of dead dogs being crammed into an Alaskan kennel run by a hoarder, who mushers say was actually selling pets and had no no connection with the world of dog racing.
The film also shows dogs chained and isolated for months out of season.
But dog handlers defend certain practices, arguing that chaining or even euthanizing a dog is not as cruel as it seems.
Chains are not torture, say the mushers
There are very few statistics on the sled dog industry, but at least 100 kennels operate between Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta and the northern states of the United States.
Tim Tedford operates a dog kennel and recreational dog sledding business near Kelowna, BC. He also speaks on behalf of the Professional Mushers Association of BC, which represents about 10 kennels.
He agrees with Routley that the film is one-sided.
The association was formed in 2011 after news of a sled dog shootout in Whistler, British Columbia sparked widespread anger.
This reform inspired Toronto director Fern Levitt to make her film.
But Tedford said Levitt was wrong.
He said the standards of care for sled dogs in British Columbia are the highest in the world, but the film ignored him.
“It’s in your interest to have happy, well-socialized sled dogs who love you. They’re not little machines,” he said.
Dogs should be released daily, but also chained close enough together so they can interact, he said.
He said he was horrified by dog abuse, but said he had found no scientific evidence proving chaining a dog caused harm.
A Cornell University study suggested that keeping dogs locked together isn’t necessarily better than tying them up solo.
“You have to do the right thing with them”
For his part, Levitt believes that many dog mushers, like Tedford, are devoted to their animals. But she said some were losing sight of the real needs of dogs.
“I feel like mushers are missing the point: is the commercial dog sledding industry humane?” she asked.
While Tedford has always denounced the controversial cull of the 56 dogs later exhumed in Whistler in 2011, he said sometimes shooting an animal is the most humane thing to do.
“It is not acceptable to shoot or kill healthy dogs in any way,” he said.
But if a dog gets sick, gets old, or gets injured and there’s no vet, he thinks that’s the appropriate action.
“What if you don’t have a needle or a pill? What if you have a dog that’s been healthy for 12 years and has never set foot in a vet [office], a sterile, beep, stainless steel and tiled place, kind of a scary place. Is that really where you want to take him?” Tedford said.
“I have euthanized dogs myself and would do it again if I needed to.
“It’s a very hard thing to do. You love these dogs. They are your family. But you have to do the right thing with them. They gave you their whole life. They gave you their whole being and they willingly do so,” he said.