New documentary takes aim at sled dog industry

By on May 12, 2017 with 15 Comments

It was a horror story that made headlines throughout Canada and the rest of North America. The operator of a recreational sled dog company ordered the execution of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, British Columbia, after a downturn in tourist bookings following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Robert Fawcett, under instructions from his employers at Howling Dog Tours, shot, stabbed, and slit the throats of the terrified animals, reportedly in full view of other dogs awaiting the same fate. They were summarily thrown into an open grave, and days later, a first responder found one shot female dog still alive and crawling among the dead.

It was a particularly macabre glimpse into one of the ugliest operations in the world of recreational dog mushing.

Six years later, a documentary, Sled Dogs, recounts the vivid details of that story, but goes further to ask and then explore if the grim events uncovered in Whistler were an aberration or just an extreme example of a callous subculture in the world of mushing where dogs are viewed as expendable. Directed by Fern Levitt, Sled Dogs – the first documentary to examine dog mushing – talks mainly to the critics of the sport and takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of the mushing business into other parts of Canada, into Snowmass, Colorado, and into Alaska where mushing’s signature competitive event, the Iditarod, occurs each year, with mushers and dogs racing to traverse more than 1,000 miles of terrain between Anchorage and Nome.

The documentary, which won the World Documentary Award and Best Female-Directed Documentary Award at the Whistler Film Festival, is being released in Canadian theaters this week, and will air May 28th on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Documentary Channel.

As Dr. Paula Kislak, a member of the board of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association observes in the film, many of the dogs in competitive mushing are simply pushed to their limits, whether it’s the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest, or other major races. Covering nearly a hundred miles a day for 12 days straight, often in the harshest and most inclement conditions, and asked to pull sleds weighted down with gear, food and water, and the musher, the dogs running the Iditarod are performing in what certainly amounts to one of the most extreme sports in the world. While there are now veterinary check-points along the way, and mushers decide to drop, or are compelled to leave, injured, sick, or exhausted dogs behind, the race tests the physical and psychological limits of even the best-trained and most competitive dogs in the world.

But what is even more jarring, according to the story told in Sled Dogs, is the lives the dogs lead before the big races or between rounds of ferrying tourists who want to experience a mushing run. Many sled dogs endure permanent tethering, chained to posts outside with limited or no shelter in extreme temperatures. And, as was the case in Whistler in 2010, mushers may simply cull the dogs who don’t seem to have the spirit or the strength for this kind of lifestyle.

Our Canadian animal rescue team witnessed the plight of these animals firsthand when they helped seize more than 130 severely neglected sled dogs in Quebec in 2009. They found the dogs in extreme cold weather, chained to trees in the forest, living on the ice-covered ground, many with no food, water, or shelter. It’s painful to even try to imagine the suffering, desperation, and hopelessness that each of these dogs and so many others like them have experienced at the hands of the dog sledding industry. Images of dogs living on heavy chains – except for the training and the racing they do — looks increasingly at odds with proper dog care, even in Alaska or rural parts of Canada. And in a world where many states and localities are now restricting tethering as a matter of law, one has to wonder if the pressure is going to build on this industry to stop operating in this way as a matter of proper care and housing. The comments in the film by the mayor of Snowmass, indicating that tethering is wrong for pets but okay for sled dogs, will strike a particularly false and inconsistent note with the vast majority of dog lovers in our society.

Animal welfare activists have long criticized mushing – while mushers, in turn, say there has been little effort by critics to distinguish between the good and the bad in the sport. Indeed, many mushers believe themselves to be deeply bonded with their dogs in lives of purpose and high adventure. A film like Sled Dogs will test mushers: do they acknowledge the worst among them, and will they strive to demand better or close ranks with the undeserving? Similarly, the rest of us might be careful with stereotypes. There is little doubt that dogs are the center of the universe for many mushers—a fact that deserves consideration, just the same as their dogs deserve lives founded on compassion.

Following the public outcry about Fawcett’s acts against dogs, the British Columbia SPCA conducted what it called the most complex investigation it had ever undertaken. This resulted in the province introducing tougher animal cruelty laws and proclaiming April 23, 2011 (the anniversary of the second day of the killings) Animal Abuse Prevention Day. The Saskatchewan SPCA also reported that adoptions of huskies went up as people’s compassion grew after learning of the terrible actions conducted against the dogs.

But as in so many cases where there are individual acts of cruelty, concerned people are asking how widespread the practices are, and whether the norms of the industry – and the larger sport of mushing — meet the test when society’s enthusiasm for caring for animals is so ascendant. They argue that even in the best of circumstances, and even among the most diligent and responsible enthusiasts for the sport, are we demanding too much of animals who have not volunteered for this kind of life?

With the other camp, defenders of mushing think that the animals were born for running and competition. They’re not going to lay down their snowshoes, but they can ask themselves if they’re ready to speak up and rid their sport of those who inflict suffering on their animals.

Sled Dogs does bring up uncomfortable but important questions, like so many other important documentaries about major animal industries have in recent years – from Food, Inc. to Blackfish to The Cove to Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Let’s hope that it stirs a discussion not only within the animal welfare community, but also within the communities where mushing is built into the local culture and where enthusiasts and fans of the activity need to agree that moral questions are not settled – not when dogs are made to suffer.

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15 Comments

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  1. Lynne says:

    So sick of how animals Are treated

  2. Sasha says:

    I have often wondered how these dogs are treated when I see pictures of them tied up out in the cold. These animals should be treated like all other pets and have the same rights to food and shelter. I’m so happy that more and more states are passing anti tethering laws and these dogs should be know exception. I hope that talks and investigations will continue and changes are made!

  3. Sally Palmer says:

    I was horrified by this information on the cruelty behind dog sledding, but I read it with a growing fear that is gripping all of us who value free speech and free press–that soon in America we may not be able to fight ag gag and other laws that seek to threaten those who produce and follow documentaries and blogs like these. The same people who commit and support such cruelty as reported here will be as ruthless in cutting out our tongues and gouging out our eyes so we cannot bear witness to any savage lack of compassion. This documentary is a reminder of how much we stand to lose if we don’t fight hard enough and smart enough to keep our right to seek and reveal facts.

  4. Margery Glickman says:

    Dr. Paula Kislak is totally correct that dogs are pushed to their limit in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Unfortunately, in the film, claims made by Stu Nelson, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, aren’t corrected by anyone giving the facts. He portrays the Iditarod as an event in which dogs get good veterinary care. They don’t.

    Mushers often blast through checkpoints, so dogs don’t get physical examinations. In some cases, dogs who have been at checkpoints for hours have died soon after leaving.

    Iditarod veterinarians allow sick and injured dogs to race. In a recent Iditarod, one of Lance Mackey’s male dogs ripped out all of his 16 toenails trying to get to a female who was in heat. This type of broken toenail is extremely painful. But veterinarians allowed Mackey to continue to race him. Imagine the agony the dog was forced to endure.

    Here’s another example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. To make matters worse, kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.

    Nelson claimed that 30 percent of the dogs are dropped at checkpoints. That’s inaccurate. On average, fifty percent of the dogs are left at checkpoints because they’re injured, sick or exhausted.

    For more information, Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://helpsleddogs.org

  5. Camille says:

    Unconscionable & Heartbreaking !! Shame on you, Canada 👎👹

    • Susan says:

      These sled dog operations and races take place both in Canada AND the United States. In fact in several other countries around the world

    • RowenaSuarez says:

      What happened on a science fiction series such as the Planet of the Apes may as well happento humans. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!

  6. Karen Westwood says:

    This is a very well written comment about Sled Dogs, 8 am curious how you feel about the director’ s agenda to shut down the sled dog industry? How you feel about her original website calling for a boycott of all commercial dog sledding operations and listing all North American operations. I cannot deny there aecthose that need to be dealt with in the industry as there are in all industries.

  7. Marilyn Colyer says:

    Like everything every where there are good people and bad people. Yes, it is apparently necessary to have concerned people and organizations watching over this sled dog group but let’s be fair and give credit to the humane mushers. As far as being pushed to limits of dogs–that is not all bad either.

  8. Sue says:

    Wherever other animals are being used by people to attain some particular goal for themselves (in this case, prizes, money, and some form of ego gratification), we will always find abuse of those animals.

  9. Lucy Shelton says:

    Thank you for writing about this excellent documentary! In Sled Dogs, the stark contrast of Alaska’s beauty to the way the dogs are treated was, to me, a refreshing break to the harsh reality of these dogs’ existence. This is a must-see film for anyone who cares about dogs. Along with Iditarod rookie Beall rejecting the advice of the veterinarian to drop his dog (who was licking away bloody diarrhea), I cannot get out of my mind the fact that the dogs did not have any reaction to touch, as they normally do. They were clearly tired and sore, and they still had to continue racing.

    The only “good” musher is one who doesn’t chain the dogs, but lives together as a true family. The Iditarod mushers’ kennels I’ve seen, the dogs are chained their entire lives to their small, dilapidated enclosures, in their feces and urine, unable to play or interact with their kennel mates, unless they are training,—all at the behest of their mushers. They are treated as slaves at the ready to perform.

    The Iditarod (as well as the Yukon Quest) should end. Five dogs died this year. Four of the dogs due to the race, bringing the known total deaths to 151. This averages about 3 dogs per year. Also, about half the dogs don’t finish, due to illness, injury, exhaustion, etc. It is morally unjustifiable to have an entertainment activity that is expected to kill dogs. Since it is logical to assume this trend will continue, one can only conclude that the organizers, mushers, and spectators care more about the entertainment, and are willing to look the other way when dogs are likely to die in every race – or they would stop doing it. People should boycott these cruel, unnecessary races, and the sponsors should pull their sponsorship.

  10. Bee Simpson says:

    While the number of dogs dying in these “races” is small compared to those dying in laboratories, at the hands of criminal “owners” and other parties, those of us who care, oppose all cruelty for even one animal. Like horse or dog racing, this is not a “sport”. A sport is competition between WILLING participants. Methinks the mushers have some unmet need to control others and excel at something. They are pathetic excuses for my species.

  11. Bee Simpson says:

    While the number of dogs dying in these “races” is small compared to those dying in laboratories, at the hands of criminal “owners” and other parties, those of us who care, oppose all cruelty for even one animal. Like horse or dog racing, this is not a “sport”. A sport is competition between WILLING participants. Methinks the mushers have some unmet need to control others and excel at something. They are pathetic excuses for my species.

  12. Shi says:

    I can’t even believe what I just read. SHAME ON ALL OF YOU AND THIS ARTICLE. Don’t guilt by association because of 1 bad person. How bout actually getting your facts, not assumptions cause that’s exactly what this article is. I have 24 babies at home who yes, live on tethers. They are not “abused” in any shape or form. The love we share with them and the bond on the trail.. I can’t even explain into words. They love to pull! They love to run! Just pull out a harness and everyone go nuts! Yes there are some bad people, but 90% of mushers are more dedicated to these dogs then most people are to their kids. We feed them the highest quality food, better food then you probably EVER purchased for your dog. and every meal they consume a minimum of 1.5 quarts of water. So about 3 to maybe a gallon a day. I can bet your “house pet” doesn’t even drink that much water a day 🙂
    And to the person who said that mushers use this as a personal gain for money is a joke. You make NO profit from racing, even with winning in 1st. It barely will pay for the dog food you’ve been feeding your babies that winter. Go to a kennel, experience it first hand before making these assumptions. Cause you all look so pathetic and ignorant it’s disgusting.

    • Ashley Keith says:

      “Shi” – I’ve been involved in this sport since January of 1998 – almost 20 years now. I’ve competed and placed in ISDRA sanctioned sprint and mid-distance races, been a live-in handler for Beargrease, Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion mushers, and my lifelong dream for many years was to run the Iditarod myself. What deterred me from this dream were the cruelties and brutalities that I witnessed in our sport, not only at top competition kennels – people who are supposed to be industry leaders – but also at smaller touring and recreation kennels.

      There are simply too many accepted cruelties in our sport, long brushed under the rug because we as mushers have chosen to continue the old wives’ tales of sled dogs somehow being “different” and less deserving than other dogs. They are working dogs with a higher drive and purpose, yes, but they are no less sentient nor deserving of human kindness and family inclusion. Having sled dogs as members of the household does not “soften” their drive or “ruin” their coats. However, it does require more time and commitment on behalf of the musher to accommodate dogs in this way.

      Chaining is easier, cheaper, and organizations like Mush With PRIDE (of which I was a member for many years) like to tell us that it’s safer. All it does it allow a musher to more easily warehouse a larger number of dogs to field a larger competitive team. That’s it, and that’s all.

      Legitimate animal welfare organizations (such as the Vancouver Humane Society, Victoria Humane Society, SPCA of Montreal, Humane Society of the United States [to which you have so violently responded], People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Dogs Deserve Better, Massachusetts SPCA, National Humane Education Society), along with the United States Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control, Association of Shelter Veterinarians, and the American Veterinary Medical Association ALL speak out against the practice of chaining. Numerous states, municipalities, and provinces are outlawing the practice altogether. If mushers wish to ensure the survival of our sport, it is time to abandon old and outdated methods of husbandry that are detrimental to the dogs. If they won’t do this by choice, it will be done by force through legislation. If you love your dogs, as you claim, bring them into your home and throw the chains away! If you have too many dogs to do this, then that is a signal to you that you have too many to properly care for and need to rehome some.

      As for the part about making money – plenty of the kennels that practice mass chain warehousing and factory farming (as shown in the documentary, which I imagine you have not seen) are FOR-PROFIT tourism kennels. All they do is make money off the dogs. Other kennels – such as the Seavey kennel shown in the documentary – not only make money giving tours, but from racing as well. Since I’m sure you’ll want a pro-mushing source, here is a breakdown of prize money from the 2016 Iditarod via KTVA in Alaska: http://www.ktva.com/iditarod-44-breakdown-of-total-prize-money-921/

      The Seaveys make more money annually in that ONE RACE than many American households. Race purses are publicized on all the websites and by ISDRA – pretending there is no money to be made in dog mushing does nothing but make you look foolish and like you have something to hide.

      Unfortunately, the film does not represent conditions at the minority of kennels – but rather, it represents conditions of the MAJORITY. I’m working on a global kennel conditions catalog on my website, and you can plainly see – as I add more kennels every single day – that the majority of industry kennels are not ethical, humane, or putting the welfare of the dogs first (http://www.humanemushing.com/current-issues).

      The only way our sport will continue is if the mushing community makes drastic changes and commits to a HUMANE sport. Otherwise, it will cease to exist, driven into the ground by the very mushers who claimed to love it so.

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