IT WAS A HORROR STORY THAT MADE headlines throughout Canada and the rest of North America. The operator of a recreational sled dog company ordered the execution of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, British Columbia, after a downturn in tourist bookings following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Robert Fawcett, under instructions from his employers at Howling Dog Tours, shot, stabbed and slit the throats of the terrified animals, reportedly in full view of other dogs awaiting the same fate. They were summarily thrown into an open grave, and days later, a first responder found one shot female dog still alive and crawling among the dead.
It was a particularly macabre glimpse into one of the ugliest operations in the world of recreational dog mushing.
Six years later, a documentary, Sled Dogs, recounts the vivid details of that story, but goes further to ask and then explore if the grim events uncovered in Whistler were an aberration or just an extreme example of a callous subculture in the world of mushing where dogs are viewed as expendable. Directed by Fern Levitt, Sled Dogs—the first documentary to examine dog mushing—talks mainly to the critics of the sport and takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of the mushing business into other parts of Canada; into Snowmass, Colorado; and into Alaska where mushing’s signature competitive event, the Iditarod, occurs each year, with mushers and dogs racing to traverse more than 1,000 miles of terrain between Anchorage and Nome.
The documentary, which won the World Documentary Award and Best Female-Directed Documentary Award at the Whistler Film Festival, has been released in Canadian theaters, and aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Documentary Channel. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.
As Dr. Paula Kislak, a member of the board of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, observes in the film, many of the dogs in competitive mushing are simply pushed to their limits, whether it’s the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest or other major races. Covering nearly a hundred miles a day for 12 days straight, often in the harshest and most inclement conditions, and asked to pull sleds weighted down with gear, food and water, and the musher, the dogs running the Iditarod are performing in what certainly amounts to one of the most extreme sports in the world. While there are now veterinary checkpoints along the way, and mushers decide to drop, or are compelled to leave, injured, sick or exhausted dogs behind, the race tests the physical and psychological limits of even the best-trained and most competitive dogs in the world.
But what is even more jarring, according to the story told in Sled Dogs, is the lives the dogs lead before the big races or between rounds of ferrying tourists who want to experience a mushing run. Many sled dogs endure permanent tethering, chained to posts outside with limited or no shelter in extreme temperatures. And, as was the case in Whistler in 2010, mushers may simply cull the dogs who don’t seem to have the spirit or the strength for this kind of lifestyle.
Our Canadian animal rescue team witnessed the plight of these animals firsthand when they helped seize more than 130 severely neglected sled dogs in Quebec in 2009. They found the dogs in extreme cold weather, chained to trees in the forest, living on the ice-covered ground, many with no food, water or shelter. It’s painful to even try to imagine the suffering, desperation and hopelessness that each of these dogs and so many others like them have experienced at the hands of the dog sledding industry. Images of dogs living on heavy chains— except for the training and the racing they do—looks increasingly at odds with proper dog care, even in Alaska or rural parts of Canada. And in a world where many states and localities are now restricting tethering as a matter of law, one has to wonder if the pressure is going to build on this industry to stop operating in this way as a matter of proper care and housing. The comments in the film by the mayor of Snowmass, indicating that tethering is wrong for pets but okay for sled dogs, will strike a particularly false and inconsistent note with the vast majority of dog lovers in our society.
Animal welfare activists have long criticized mushing—while mushers, in turn, say there has been little effort by critics to distinguish between the good and the bad in the sport. Indeed, many mushers believe themselves to be deeply bonded with their dogs in lives of purpose and high adventure. A film like Sled Dogs will test mushers: do they acknowledge the worst among them, and will they strive to demand better or close ranks with the undeserving? Similarly, the rest of us might be careful with stereotypes. There is little doubt that dogs are the center of the universe for many mushers —a fact that deserves consideration, just the same as their dogs deserve lives founded on compassion.
Following the public outcry about Fawcett’s acts against dogs, the British Columbia SPCA conducted what it called the most complex investigation it had ever undertaken. This resulted in the province introducing tougher animal cruelty laws and proclaiming April 23, 2011 (the anniversary of the second day of the killings) Animal Abuse Prevention Day. The Saskatchewan SPCA also reported that adoptions of huskies went up as people’s compassion grew after learning of the terrible actions conducted against the dogs.
But as in so many cases where there are individual acts of cruelty, concerned people are asking how widespread the practices are, and whether the norms of the industry —and the larger sport of mushing —meet the test when society’s enthusiasm for caring for animals is so ascendant. They argue that even in the best of circumstances, and even among the most diligent and responsible enthusiasts for the sport, are we demanding too much of animals who have not volunteered for this kind of life?
With the other camp, defenders of mushing think that the animals were born for running and competition. They’re not going to lay down their snowshoes, but they can ask themselves if they’re ready to speak up and rid their sport of those who inflict suffering on their animals.
Sled Dogs does bring up uncomfortable but important questions, like so many other important documentaries about major animal industries have in recent years— from Food, Inc. to Blackfish to The Cove to Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Let’s hope that it stirs a discussion not only within the animal welfare community, but also within the communities where mushing is built into the local culture and where enthusiasts and fans of the activity need to agree that moral questions are not settled—not when dogs are made to suffer.
Used with permission. This review first appeared on blog.humanesociety.org.