A special report on Fern Levitt's powerful documentary SLED DOGS is scheduled to air Friday, November 3 on ABC's Nightline.
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.