Documentary filmmaking is an efficient and effective way to promote a message, support or denigrate a topic, and/or forward an agenda. It’s difficult to say which intention was at the fore when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) commissioned Fern Levitt, an accomplished Canadian writer, producer and director of documentary films, to produce a searing investigation into the sport of sled dog racing.
The film, titled Sled Dogs, is slated for release in December at the internationally respected Whistler Film Festival in the mountain resort community of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. The festival catalog’s description of the 82-minute film reads like a blistering indictment of the sport:
“In what will surely be one of the more controversial documentary entries looking at Northern snow culture, Fern Levitt’s exposé of the sled dog puppy farm industry will have particular resonance here in Whistler. It recalls a local business who was found to have euthanized a large number of sled dogs when the costs of raising them no longer made it a lucrative business.
“What is shocking to learn is that nothing under the law protects these dogs from some of the cruelest conditions, as they are largely considered to be nothing more than private property. Many of these dogs are being raised to take part in the famed Alaskan dog-sled race known as the Iditarod. As the film carefully explains, a tourist myth has been propagated that these dogs have been bred for and love to run through the snow in teams. What we see instead are the cruel conditions under which many of these dogs are raised and trained.
“This film exposes the nature of these puppy farms and how they are just big business to many of the operators who just leave these beautiful animals tied to chains for months on end. To its credit, a group of Whistler operators tried to restart the local puppy farm using ethical methods, but they soon found that the costs were too high, and had to regrettably shut down.
“If you love dogs, this will be a tough film to sit through, but credit the filmmakers for exposing a form of state sanctioned animal cruelty that has to be regulated or somehow brought to an end.”
The film’s impending release and a brief two-minute YouTube trailer have generated a firestorm of protest in the mushing community. Alaskan journalists Ellen Lockyer (Alaska Public Media) and Craig Medred (CraigMedred.news) described the film’s effect and the reactions of several mushers, sharing their thoughts with each other through mushing-related Facebook groups and forums. Medred’s article, titled “Iditarod Nightmare,” was published Nov. 1 and quoted Alaskan musher Lisbet Norris and Canadian musher Susan Rogan, and predicted the film was “certain to cause problems for the Iditarod . . . ”
Lockyer’s Nov. 2 article, “Mushers Await Release of Documentary Criticizing the Sport,” noted, “Levitt received $400,000, Canadian, from the Canadian Media Fund to produce the film, although the targets of the film are primarily two kennels: one in Whistler, BC, the other in Snomass, CO.”
Alaskan blogger Toni Reitter released a blistering post on Nov. 1 titled Beware the Sled Dog Film “Documentary” which included the full text of one musher targeted by the film. Reitter explained, “One of the mushers supposedly featured in the ‘film’ has spoken out via social media. Patrick Beall trains and runs out of Mitch Seavey’s Kennel in Seward and Sterling, Alaska. Patrick was part of the Seavey puppy team in Iditarod 2016 and was told by the film makers that they wanted to follow a rookie in the race. They had to get permission from the ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee). From what I can tell they lied and provided false information on multiple levels.”
It’s worth reading Beall’s entire post, in which he writes, “They followed me during Iditarod. They were there at the ceremonial and re-start. Just as excited as I was. I saw a glimmer in their eyes of how intriguing and glorious the atmosphere at this event can be. They gave me high fives and like they always had during filming been so impressed with everything that was going on.”
And later, in Nome, at the end of his race, “I was so damn happy. All of this was of course filmed by this crew. Pure life in the moment joy. The kind that you can’t stage, you can’t fake, you can’t ask even the best actor to accomplish. And guess what, they were there witnessing all of it. With their cameras and their false agenda. Behind their fake smiles and congratulations.”
The sense of betrayal Patrick writes about is palpable, and the thousands of posts and comments on social media in just the past three days (over 300 beneath the YouTube trailer alone) are testament to the widely felt outrage; but as Toni Reitter rightly explains, the mushing community is “. . . . calmly and intelligently refuting the accusations being levied at them.”
Many people within the mushing community are taking a proactive stance and working together to provide resources and information which convey the truth about the sport. Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Hawks wrote, “Many years ago, when I first envisioned making my documentary film, Everything It Takes, one of my goals was to show the bond between mushers and their dogs. I also wanted to show how much work, time, and money they invest in their dogs out of their love for them and for the sport of mushing.”
Hawks’ film follows rookie Iditarod musher Mary Helwig as she prepares for the 2016 run to Nome, highlighting the strength of commitment in taking on what she would term ‘the challenge of a lifetime.’
Musher Annie Hammond penned a thoughtful open letter to the various parties involved, including the filmmakers (“If we’re expected to have ethics in the dog world (and we do), then it logically follows that the reporting institution(s) should be held equally accountable. That’s what’s so troubling about this project– it was set up as a sting. A stab in the back.”), the skeptics (“Rest assured, we are not trying to ‘cover up’ for the bad apples, we’re simply bringing to your attention the fact that deceitful editing can easily make even the best apples appear rotten.”), the viewers (“You have all been duped.”), the backers (“We’ll gladly accept your next $400,000 to share OUR side of the story.”), and to everyone (“This one trailer, with its unscrupulous editing, is not indicative of the sled dog world as a whole.”).
One of the kennels spotlighted in the film is Krabloonik Dogsledding in Snowmass Village, Colorado. Ellen Lockyer explains in her article for KTOO: “Fern Levitt zeros in Dan MacEachen, a Snomass, Colorado, kennel owner who was charged with animal cruelty in 2013. He pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty in 2015. Other charges were dismissed. MacEachen competed in the Iditarod seven times.”
In December, 2014, Danny and Gina Phillips took over the operation of Krabloonik Dogsledding, and the business has since garnered over 100 TripAdvisor reviews and a four-star rating. In a popular mushing forum on Facebook, Dan Phillips has been among those discussing the film and recently commented in part: “I spent my morning in my dog yard asking my dogs why this is happening.. I walked into my office and my wife had this on the computer screen. I got my answer I needed.”
Here’s what Dan’s wife, Gina, had written:
We are Mushers and We are Proud
Mushers are a generally misunderstood group of people, often quiet, reserved individuals…not always fans of large groups or society. People don’t understand how we can travel for miles into the wilderness, with only the company of our dogs on our team and the love and support of our families and handlers, who become family, at home rooting for us to be safe and return home victorious. The public doesn’t understand why we have so many dogs, how we can possibly know all of their names and how in the world can we possibly take care of ‘all those dogs’.
We in fact find a society within our kennels, with our dogs, fellow mushers, and all the families involved. What they don’t understand is that ‘all those dogs’ are our family, our village, our hearts living outside our bodies. We not only know their names, we know their personalities, when they are happy and when they might be sad. We learn their quirks, insecurities and where we can work with them to be their very best. We know them, and they most certainly know us. It’s not a chore to take care of them any more than it’s a chore to feed, clothe and nurture our human babies.
This is a lifestyle, not an occupation a career or a business. We are a community of people, children, dogs and nature. A lifestyle lived by few and understood by fewer. Our dogs are our coworkers, our friends and a furry neck to nuzzle when things just get too hard in the world. They understand us and we them. We fit into a space all our own, the dogs not quite dogs and the humans not quite like everyone else. But in that space, we all find our home, together.
I was not raised a musher, I married one. He wasn’t raised a musher, but he was born to be one. Few answer their call to follow this passion, this lifestyle, and even fewer make it their true life’s work. Who are we? We are tough, we are compassionate, we are true animal and nature lovers, we are happy with little, but will give everything we have to a visitor. We love our lives, our dogs and our lifestyle. Many will misunderstand us, and that’s ok… But we are Mushers and we are Proud.
Snowmass Village, CO