This is a guest post from Fern Levitt, the award-winning documentary filmmaker behind Sled Dogs, the first film to expose the brutal reality of the dogsled racing and tourism industry.
March 3, 2018 marked the start of the 46th annual Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, and I was there at the ceremonial start. Not as a filmmaker embarking on another documentary, but to stand with others in protest of this “last great race”.
The lavish opening ceremony is in sharp contrast to the humble beginnings of the race itself: In 1925 teams of sled dogs and mushers transported a life saving serum over 1000 miles to the remote village of Nome, a town inflicted with an outbreak of diphtheria. Despite sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds, the teams of sled dogs made the route in record time and the entire town was saved. The mushers and dogs were considered heroes and celebrated throughout the United States.
The Iditarod began in 1973 as a race to commentate the 1925 Serum Run. It retraces the very same route and has become the biggest sporting event in Alaska, bringing thousands of tourist dollars to the town of Anchorage.
Mushers boast of their love for the canines and say they consider these dogs super athletes and beloved members of their family.
But in recent years, reports of animal abuse, infighting and dog-doping scandals have shattered the myth of a noble partnership between musher and dog. Sponsors have dropped out, no longer willing to be associated with rumours of animal cruelty.
My personal relationship with the Iditarod started quite unexpectedly in 2010 when my husband and I went dogsledding in Northern Ontario.
When our two-day trip was over, we went looking for where the dogs lived. Down the road we were stunned to find a field of more than 200 dogs, living in what I considered to be heartbreaking conditions.
Over two hundred dogs, many running endlessly in circles, lived at the end of a chain. They had plastic barrels or dilapidated wooden shacks as their only shelter against freezing temperatures. Some of the dogs’ ribs showed through their emaciated, filthy bodies. Some dogs barked furiously to get our attention, others sat quietly with downcast eyes and tails between their legs. It was the one of the most quiet, passive dogs that we chose to take home with us that very day—our beloved dog Slater, who at nine years old, had lived on a chain his entire life.
It was because of Slater that I, as a journalist, felt compelled to make a documentary about the Iditarod, the world’s most famous sled dog race. For over a year my film crew and I followed an Iditarod rookie musher, who trained and raced two-year-old dogs for champion musher Mitch Seavey, (who recently has been accused of dog abuse by his former handler, Jane Stevens).
The sled dogs in Alaska live under similar conditions as the sled dogs in Canada—hundreds of them tied to chains with plastic barrels as shelter. The dogs spend most of their time alone on the chain except when on training runs for 40 to 80 miles and more each day, preparing for the race.
What we documented as a film crew was not a unique breed of canine athletes, as racers often claim. What we saw were thin, frightened dogs who cowered when examined by the Iditarod’s veterinarians during the race. We saw dogs with severe dehydration and exhaustion.
Over 150 dogs have died since the inception of the Iditarod, yet every year the race continues. Many more are killed—including puppies who are drowned or otherwise disposed of—because they don’t make the grade or the mushers can’t afford to keep so many dogs. Shockingly, culling healthy dogs is not illegal in Alaska (or the rest of the United States and Canada), as dogs are considered property and killing them is the right of their owners. Meanwhile, compassionate people understand that dogs are sentient beings with emotions and intelligence, capable of feeling pain and stress, or happiness and joy. Our laws must catch up to societal attitudes.
So I went back to Anchorage to stand in hope that the chains will finally be broken. There is now speculation that the Iditarod, the last great race, just might be coming to a shattering end, hounded by animal cruelty and doping scandals.
Here at home, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the public and our lawmakers to ignore the vast suffering that is endemic to the Canadian sled dog industry. From the Whistler sled dog massacre, to the sickening video footage earlier this year from Windrift Adventures in Ontario, to the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race, people are seeing the dark side of this industry. Please take action today—call on our politicians to help the thousands of dogs used in Canada’s own dogsledding industry. Dogs deserve so much better than the misery of life on a chain.
Join the Animal Justice mailing list