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‘Sled Dogs’ is an important movie. The pushback is a sign that it’s on target

  • Author: Peter Porco
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 2
  • Published March 2

"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 cinema in Anchorage. The movie will next be shown at 2 p.m. Saturday — first day of the 2018 Iditarod — at the Wilda Marston Theatre in Z.J. Loussac Library. As of this writing, no other bookings are scheduled.

"Sled Dogs" has been controversial 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, complained that they were blindsided 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 theater 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 ceremonial race start, but the theater ultimately declined, its manager telling Levitt that the space was spoken for as a warmup 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 that are tethered by the score and sometimes by the hundreds, day in and day out, each to its 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 and early '90s), was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty (all but one were eventually dismissed). 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 behind a dog 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 that finish the race. 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 has struck a nerve. If what comes out of "Sled Dogs" is even greater attention to dog welfare, greater scrutiny of how the dogs are treated and handled during and after the races, and what their kennel lives are like, the filmmaker will have done a great service to creatures that have no say in how they're exploited.

Peter Porco is a former reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News and former instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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