Mushers brace for Sled Dogs’ scathing indictment of the industry

A new Canadian documentary – Sled Dogs – which juxtaposes the Iditarod Trail sled dog races with disturbing off-season footage of dogs pacing in endless dusty circles, is infuriating members of the international sled dog industry .

Professional dog handlers are calling the film – which is punctuated by the haunting jingle of a chain of chafing dogs – an unfair indictment of dog sledding, an iconic and long-glorified Nordic practice.

Some dog mushers want the film removed from the Whistler Film Festival lineup before the Dec. 3, 2016 premiere.

Toronto-based award-winning director Fern Levitt said her passion for sled dogs was piqued in 2010 after she went on a dog sled ride in northern Ontario, where she saw hundreds of chained dogs and learned that 30 were about to be shot.

“I just couldn’t turn away”

“I was absolutely shocked. To me, it looked like a dog concentration camp,” Levitt said.

“Most Canadians have no idea what’s going on in dog sledding operations.”

Director Fern Levitt’s work typically focuses on human rights issues, but she says her eyes were opened to the lives of sled dogs after embarking on a sledding adventure in Ontario in 2010. (Fern Levitt)

Levitt’s dog sledding experience appalled her, and the slaughter of 100 dogs in Whistler, British Columbia, when business slowed after the 2010 Olympics, spurred her to action.

“I just couldn’t turn away,” Levitt said.

Levitt said she was horrified that the high-profile massacre did not change the rules of tethering or slaughter; instead, British Columbia publishes guidelines on humane ways to shoot unwanted dogs.

Myth of the sled dog

“It’s not that I think all dog mushers are bad or cruel. I think we want to believe the myth that these dogs are different. [But] they are like any other dog and they have the needs of any other dog,” she said.

After that first dog sled ride in Ontario, Levitt brought one of the company dogs home the same day.

Her adopted dog, Slater, was nervous, afraid of human contact and survived only three years after spending the previous nine years on a chain, she said.

Sled Dog manager Fern Levitt adopted her dog, Slater, from an Ontario dog sledding company, where she says he had about a year left as her lead dog. (Fern Levitt)

“I don’t think most Canadians realize that you can legally keep your dog chained up for life. I didn’t know it was legal to shoot your dog,” she said.

The cinema is debating

Levitt hopes his film will inspire changes to Canadian laws. Trailers for the film have already set fire to both sides of the debate.

“People need to know how these dogs are really treated,” Ashley Keith, a Colorado activist with Sled Dog Action Coalition, wrote in comments online about the trailer.

“I’ve been involved in sled dog sports since 1998 and I’m very happy that there is finally a movie that will do for sled dogs what Blackfish did for killer whales,” she added.

A team heads for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race in downtown Anchorage March 5, 2016, to begin the nearly 1,000-mile journey through the frigid Alaskan wilderness. (Nathaniel Wilder/Reuters)

But some industry professionals say the film smears an entire industry, highlighting the worst examples of abuse.

One scene shows a pile of dead dogs dumped by an Alaskan breeder, who was described by a US court as a hoarder.

“Every kennel I know loves their dogs as if they were their child. This movie is not telling the truth at all!” wrote Casper Nielson of the Asavakit Huskies team in response to numerous comments online.

Iditarod committee blames ‘hard-core’ animal rights activists

Critics say Levitt promised to look into humane dog sledding businesses, but his focus shifted and some attendees felt misled.

His film looks at Krabloonik Kennel founder and seven-time Iditarod competitor Dan MacEachen, who was charged with animal cruelty in Colorado. Footage from his kennel, before he sold it, shows dogs spinning on chains and chewing on metal, some with bloody faces.

Sled Dogs also shows the life of a racing dog behind the scenes of the grueling nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod, where some dogs are retired due to stress, injuries or bleeding ulcers.

Over the years, at least 140 dogs have died in the race, which was originally envisioned as a relay to deliver medical serum, not an endurance test for a team.

Martin Koenig’s Iditarod team after leaving the starting chute in Willow, Alaska. (Nathaniel Wilder/Reuters)

Asked to comment on the documentary, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) released a written statement Nov. 10, saying it was “victimized by animal rights groups bent on imposing their agenda on us.”

The committee added: “Any musher found guilty of inhumane treatment will be disqualified and banned from competition.”

fame and profit

Levitt said her film reflected what she discovered.

“I went looking for the truth,” she said.

The film also follows a sensitive early Iditarod racer as he struggles to massage and groom the dogs, stressed from the freezing and harrowing race.

Sled Dogs takes a hard and uncomfortable look at the sled dog supply chain and the animals that don’t make the cut. (Sled Dogs/CCI Entertainment)

Levitt interviewed a longtime dog handler, who described the “sadistic” treatment of dogs, some of whom he said were beaten or killed backstage if they couldn’t run.

“I interviewed those who are for the industry and those who are against it. It will be up to the public to decide,” Levitt said.

In the film, activists like former Alaskan dog handler Mike Crawford say sled dogs are sacrificed for glory.

“[Mushers] do it for the glory. They do it for the money,” Crawford told Levitt on camera.

The Iditarod is a grueling sled dog race that travels nearly 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, changing direction every year. (

Sled dogs love race horses

But it’s comments like this that irritate many mushers.

“I give dog sledding tours and my dogs sleep with me,” said Washington dog musher Connie Starr.

“This film is libelous and misleading and should be removed from the film festival lineup. Yes, there are bad actors…The mushing community avoids these people as well.”

Starr said sled dogs are treated like prize racehorses.

“You’re not going to put bad gas in your race car,” Starr said.

And it’s not about profit or fame, she says.

Preparing for the Iditarod or similar Yukon Quest race costs at least $20,000 to $30,000 and means a year off.

“They do it because they love being on the trail with their dogs,” she said.

Bette C. Alvarado