Sled Dogs is the first documentary to look at what happens at sled dog operations and the Iditarod once the tourists go home.
Picture yourself flying along a frozen, winding trail surrounded by wild boreal forests with only the whisper of sled runners beneath you and a howling pack of dogs to break the solitude. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why year after year thousands of tourists flock to experience one of the most quintessentially Northern pastimes: dog sledding. This idyllic portrait has been promoted by both the tourism industry and the dog sledding world for decades in an attempt to maximize profits while concealing a sometimes gruesome reality.
Dogs in many commercial dog sled companies are continually tethered to a chain and euthanized when they’re deemed no longer useful. In 2011, the public finally learned the truth after an incident in Whistler, B.C. made international headlines: One hundred dogs were brutally murdered and thrown into a mass grave by a tourism company after an unprofitable season. Sled dog companies along with the B.C. government decried the practice, claiming it to be an isolated occurrence; but animal rights activists maintain that this practice is pervasive throughout the entire industry. As seen in the film, the trial of Dan MacEachen in Colorado will once again bring the sled dog industry into the public eye. Dan, who was the owner of one of the largest dog sledding companies in North America, was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty.
If he was found guilty, the case would spark a much-needed debate about animal rights laws in North America. This is not the first time concerns were raised against MacEachen. In 1988, he was charged with animal cruelty, but the charge was dropped and Dan continued to run his sledding operations until 2013.
“The Last Great Race”, Alaska’s Iditarod, is one of the largest financial pillars in the northern community and is a tradition well loved by mushers and spectators alike. Thousands of tourists flock each year to watch as teams of sled dogs run over a thousand miles across Mother Nature’s harshest landscape.
Some of the Iditarod supporters claim that sled dogs are “canine athletes” and love the challenge of the sport. They claim that sled dogs are born and bred to race and are “different” from other dogs. Animal rights critics along with some former mushers fervently disagree and claim that these statements are used to justify animal abuse and keep a misinformed public in the dark. Sled Dogs is the first documentary to explore both sides of the dog sledding industry. This film weaves together various characters and narratives to explore a truth about the dog sledding industry while posing the question: “Is the abuse seen against “man’s best friend” disguised as entertainment?
In 2010, my husband and I went dog sledding in northern Ontario. I was excited to finally try this quintessential Canadian sport that combined my love for dogs and my love for the wide open wilderness. After an exhilarating sled ride through Algonquin Park, I went back to see where the dogs lived. What I saw was unexpected and distressing – hundreds of dogs all attached to chains several feet long, unable to move beyond their very short restraints. It was an image that I will never forget.
One of the staff members of the dog sled operation then told us that if he could not find homes for 30 of the dogs, they were going to “cull” the ones which were no longer “useful”. I was shocked he would openly admit this. I wanted to believe that this was an aberration and not the norm for the sled dog industry.
That day we rescued one of the dogs, Slater, who became part of our family. He had lived on a short chain for nine years. I put that experience to the back of my mind until a year later. In 2011, international media exploded with a story of 100 sled dogs killed in Whistler, British Columbia. A sled dog operator was losing money and his “herd had to be cut in half”. With cries of outrage from the public, the B.C. government declared that the “incident” was an anomaly and announced they would have the strongest animal rights laws in all of Canada.
Two incidences do not make a pattern, but they were enough to make me curious. I wanted to learn more about the way sled dog companies operated. My research on the industry has spanned close to five years. Under Canadian and American laws, dogs are still considered “property” (with slight differences from state to state and province to province). It is legal to chain a dog continually as long as some kind of shelter and food are provided. Killing dogs is allowed, so long as it is done “humanely”. These laws are most certainly open to interpretation.
As filming progressed over a period of two years, travelling to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in Canada and Alaska and Colorado in the United States, four storylines emerged: a puppy being trained to be a sled dog in Ontario, a novice musher and his young dogs as they prepared to race the Iditarod, dog sledding in Snowmass, Colorado (Dan MacEachen, the owner of a commercial dog sled operation had been arrested and convicted for animal cruelty), and the aftermath of the Whistler Sled Dog tragedy. I also researched and filmed the re-homing of sled dogs, as it is an alternative to culling.
I reached out to veterinarians Dr. Paula Kislak and Dr. Rebecca Ledger and others who had worked with former sled dogs because I repeatedly heard how sled dogs are ‘different’ from regular dogs. I explored the economics of running a sled dog company for profit with consideration for the humane treatment of the animals in Whistler, British Columbia.
Most of the public sees commercial dog sledding sites on the internet with pictures of happy dogs. It is easy to believe that sled dogs are different from pet dogs, that they are well looked after, that they “love what they do” and “live to run”. Like everybody else, I had no reason to disbelieve the promotional material.
My film became an open quest to find out the truth about the sled dog industry. Without an agenda, we followed the stories as we found them, filming what was in front of us.
People wanted to believe the myths about the sled dogs, so they could run the Iditarod or own a commercial sled dog business, never really questioning if what they were doing was fair to the animals. They often wanted to see their industry through rose-coloured glasses, ignoring testimony from experts because they wanted to continue their dream and their livelihood. But all too often, the treatment of many dogs in the sled dog industry is both cruel and inhumane. Keeping dogs chained, having them live outside, and forcing them to run miles on end is against the basic nature of these animals. Sled dogs are no different than all other dogs. They need the same care and conditions that all dogs need in order to thrive.