Sled Dogs: Interview with director Fern Levitt

Life on the Run—and on the Chain
By The Bark, October 2017

A documentary like Sled Dogs is long overdue, and internationally acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt has proven herself to be the perfect person to direct such an eye-opening exposé. Passionate about the subject of the inhumane treatment of dogs in commercial sled-dog operations and long-distance endurance races, such as the 1,000-mile Iditarod, she takes up their cause in this film. Her mission to unchain the dogs and shut down the industry is a noble one. Once you see this film—which we highly recommend you do—your attention will surely be sparked as well. We spoke with her recently about what brought her to make it, the image and the reality behind the sled-dog industry (both commercial tours and racing), and what effects she hopes Sled Dogs will have.

Bark: Your film’s been compared to Blackfish and The Cove. How do you feel about that?

Fern Levitt: That is a huge compliment. I have been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years and until this film, my work has been about people who fought for the rights of others, against tyranny and for change, including the Little Rock Nine and Václav Havel. They have had a huge influence on me. As a filmmaker, I have been influenced by the stories that have been told and by people whom I have filmed.

BK: What inspired you to take on this project?

FL: After a 2010 dogsledding experience, I went behind the scenes and saw that the dogs were kept in inhumane conditions. We saw 300 to 400 dogs in a field, all chained and with plastic barrels as their shelters. It was getting to be spring and you could see the feces and mud. We adopted one of the dogs; his name was Slater and he had been chained for nine years. He was going to be killed because he was coming to the end of what one of the staff members said was his “useful” life. He was in horrific condition. I knew that as a filmmaker, I had the power to make a change. There was no way I was turning away from this.

After Blackfish came out, I saw the power and impact that film had on the public and on SeaWorld, and felt people would respond in the same way to sled dogs. We had the opportunity to save these dogs, which has always been my goal. Not just to make a film but to save these dogs and to find homes for them.

BK: What were your biggest challenges?

FL: There were many challenges just as an animal lover—to see these dogs chained like that. And, you know, dogs are so expressive. You know when they are happy or sad. I saw the desperation in their eyes, and when they were petted, they clung on whatever way they could. They were so desperate for human touch, and it broke my heart. The only way I could cope was to promise that I would do everything in my power to free them.

It was difficult too with the people involved, like the musher, Patrick, whom I filmed training for and running his first Iditarod. I really like him a lot and kept hoping he would recognize what’s going on and turn away from this. I challenged him and asked him many questions, but when it came down to it, he was determined to do what he was going to do. He put his need to finish the race higher than the needs of his dogs, who were dehydrated, exhausted and very depressed.

I felt that way about Gena, the kennel owner, as well. In the end, she was going to see herself portrayed in a light that isn’t positive, but what she’s doing isn’t positive. I had a hard time with that; I talked about it to my rabbi, and he asked me to think about the greater good. The greater good was saving these dogs, because what was going on behind the scenes is cruel and immoral. But it was a struggle.

BK: The film is well balanced, given the kind of story you could have told. Though it’s clear where your sympathies lie, you present different points of view.

FL: I did that very purposefully. With Patrick, I wanted people to see themselves as Patrick. Until I rescued Slater, I was like Patrick. I said I was an animal lover but I took my kids to the zoo, I went dolphin swimming, rode elephants in Africa. I didn’t think about the animals’ welfare, I thought about my fun. I even saw the elephant being chained after our ride. But I did what I wanted to do: I wanted to ride an elephant, I wanted to touch a dolphin and so I put my needs ahead of theirs. I had to take a good look at myself and realize that I was as selfish as everyone else and had no business calling myself an animal lover. In Patrick, I was hoping that everyone could see themselves and would begin to question themselves too. What does it say about us that we use animals for our enjoyment and don’t think of their welfare? I hoped that people would reflect on that.

BK: How did you approach the issue of balance?

FL: I knew I had to balance the film because it’s very hard to watch an animal being abused—I can’t watch that myself. We wanted people to watch it and listen to the narrative, but if it were too heavy duty, they wouldn’t.

We are influenced by the narrative that others give us. I’m a journalist, I’m supposed to be asking questions, but I fell for the narrative too. I wanted to go dogsledding and bought the story that happy dogs are pulling the sled, they love what they do, they’re canine athletes and so on. So I wanted to show both sides in order to demonstrate that the narratives are just all BS. Maybe Patrick and Gena honestly believe that these dogs are somehow different and can be treated differently. But that’s the false narrative I’ve heard too many times.

BK: There’s a similarity in the stories promulgated about Greyhounds and sled dogs. Some say that Greyhounds aren’t like other dogs too.

FL: I had to challenge that with the truth. I had to change the lie that somehow these dogs are different from other dogs. That’s why I put that scene in at the end of the film showing rescued sled dogs with their people and families—they are just dogs clearly loving their new freedoms.

One thing I feel cautiously optimistic about is that people are recognizing that animals are sentient beings, and have emotions and feelings. People are speaking out for the rights of animals. The attitude has changed. Dogs are so loved, with good reason, so I hope that if people understand the truth of the industry, there will be calls for change.

BK: Can commercial dogsledding be done ethically?

FL: Eden Ethical Dogsledding is a small tour operation owned by a brother and sister in Vermont. Their dogs all live at home, they are never chained, it’s not profitbased. But generally, people are greedy and profit comes out on top every time, so I’d say no, it can’t be done ethically.

It’s not that I’m against dogsledding, but I am against doing it on a commercial basis. Look at what happened to the Iditarod. It started out as a tribute to the original 1925 serum run to Nome, but each year it becomes larger, more corrupt and more horrific. Whenever we use animals for entertainment and profit, nine times out of 10, their welfare is compromised. People ask me if I want to close down the industry and the answer is, yes, I do.

BK: What is the key to doing that? Is it up to the consumer, as with what happened with SeaWorld, or can it be done legislatively?

FL: Governments won’t do anything. When more than 100 sled dogs were slaughtered in my country, you saw what the government did. [Editor’s note: The government conducted a study and found that killing the dogs wasn’t wrong; it was the way they were killed that was the problem.] It is up to us. That’s what happened with SeaWorld. Because of Blackfish, people stopped going, and they were forced to make changes. Wells Fargo Bank and State Farm Insurance withdrew their support from the Iditarod, and that was due to a combination of seeing the film and pressure from PETA. These companies don’t want to be associated with animal abuse.

BK: Did you get feedback from veterinarians?

FL: When I finished the film, I sat down with a group of vets and showed it to them. They were horrified that the dogs were allowed to get into the conditions they saw. They were dehydrated, they were lame, their tails were tucked between their legs, their eyes were sunken. The consensus of the 40 vets was that these were sick dogs. A third of these dogs are dropped out of the race because of bleeding ulcers, even though they’re given medication to prevent them. Bleeding ulcers are a result of an animal being severely stressed.

Plus, science tells us that chaining is cruel and inhumane. Dogs are pack animals and putting them on chains deprives them of living that way. The head vet of the Iditarod said, “Well, you know, they can run around on their chains, jump onto their houses.” I couldn’t believe he said that. Apparently even vets sell their soul.

BK: How did you present the film to the people you wanted to appear in it—not just the activists, but people like Patrick and Gena?

FL: You keep hearing that these dogs aren’t pet dogs, they are sled dogs. You hear it from the mayor of Snowmass, you hear it from the new owners of Krabloonik [a Snowmass commercial sled-dog operation], you hear it from Patrick, from Gena, and I think they really believe it. So when I told Patrick that I wanted to film a first-time musher running the Iditarod with first-time dogs, he thought that was great. It wasn’t difficult at all to involve him.

BK: You filmed some heartbreaking moments at Gena’s kennel—chaining a puppy, finding a dead dog. How they did they come about?

FL: A musher told me that puppies cry when they’re put on the chain for the first time—they cry for days. How can you do that? But you see how Gena did it. And she had no idea that the other dog was dead—I found him. Through my research, I learned that many dogs freeze to death or die of heat stroke in the summer. It was a particularly cold night before we filmed there, and I just had a feeling. As the guys were filming, I walked around and found the frozen dog. She told us that his brother had died the same way the previous year.

BK: What can people do? What’s the call to action?

FL: First, people should not support or give business to commercial dog sledding. Second, they should not support the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest [Canada’s 1,000-mile sled-dog event]. Third, they need to talk about it, spread the word. These dogs spend their lives at the end of a short chain and are easily discarded when they are no longer useful. That’s the reality of the industry—it’s not the happydogs- pulling-the-sled fable. People need to sign petitions, spread the word on social media, go to sleddogsfilm.com, read about it and tell their friends. If anyone is going dogsledding, tell them the truth about what’s going on. We need help convincing other sponsors to drop out. (That’s what happened to the circus; people stopped supporting the circus after 140 years.)

We can really do this—we can right these wrongs and bring these dogs home. But we need support. We need people to break their chains and find homes for them. That would be my dream. I live for that day.

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