By Jenn Watt
Dec. 6 2016
Local dogsled tour operators are upset by a new documentary on their industry that they say portrays them in a bad light and could be damaging to many operations.
Sled Dogs premiered at the Whistler Film Festival on the weekend. Described by its press kit as “the first documentary to explore both sides of the dogsledding industry” the film takes a highly critical look at the dogsledding industry and questions whether dogs should be used for commercial purposes.
Part of the story told by director Fern Levitt includes the notorious sled dog cull in Whistler in 2010. It also looks at a tour operator in Colorado charged with eight counts of animal cruelty.
While few have seen the film it has riled many in the industry who say the portrayal is unfair and worry that the general public will see dogsled tours as cruel.
“If she’s allowed to tell the story she’s trying to tell the public will think this is the entire dogsledding industry and there’s nothing further from the truth” said Haliburton-based dogsled tour operator Tanya McCready of Winterdance.
While she hasn’t yet seen the film McCready said the trailer and other materials published about the documentary give the impression that the dogsled industry is rife with abuse.
“I can’t say I know anyone of the dozens and dozens of mushers I’ve met that abuse their dogs. I’ve never met one” she said.
She said the film has already cost operations money. Two Toronto private schools have cancelled their planned dogsledding for this year. “A portion of that was ours” McCready said.
The cull of 100 sled dogs in Whistler is one of the focal points of the trailer however McCready said this incident was widely condemned in the dogsledding community and doesn’t represent the treatment of dogs by the majority and certainly not in the Haliburton Highlands.
At Winterdance their 150 dogs are kept in a 5000-square-foot heated kennel. She said the dogs are like her children known by name and given the best food and veterinary care.
The same goes for Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve said its tourism manager Peter Cundall.
“Our dogs have a roofed kennel facility and they have a kennel mate and a dog house with hay water and everything right in the kennels for them” he said.
He encouraged members of the public to visit the facility to see the way the dogs are kept. “We do run recreational tours with our dogs. We do allow people to visit our kennel on a tour or not on a tour” he said. Both Haliburton Forest and Winterdance keep their dogs after they are no longer able or willing to pull a sled.
Local veterinarian Laurie Brown said she finds the suggestion that anyone would question the health and well being of local sled dogs insulting. She had heard both local operations had been listed online as businesses to boycott and wanted to set the record straight.
“I think we’re all cognizant that there are establishments out there where the dogs’ welfare is not a priority” she said but Winterdance and Haliburton Forest are not among them.
To support the local operations she wrote a letter outlining her knowledge of the dogs’ treatment.
“They’re treasured beloved members of the family. They’re cared for. They’re in great condition. And they’re joyously happy to be doing what they’re doing which is pull a dogsled” she said.
Brown has been providing care for the dogs at Winterdance since 1999 and Haliburton Forest since 2001.
“I’m very insulted that they would be placed on a list” she said.
Director Fern Levitt told the Echo that she doesn’t think mushers are bad people but that society should be questioning whether animals should be used in commercial operations.
She said there is much that the public doesn’t see.
“I was shocked to find out that dogs can be chained for their whole lives as long as some kind of food and shelter is provided” she said as an example.
She said even with the operations that don’t chain their dogs: “If you’re using animals to make money you’re compromising. Then it becomes a money-making operation. You’re compromising the needs of your animals.”
Her own dog Slater was adopted in 2010 from a dogsledding operation which was Levitt’s introduction to the industry. She said the dog would have been euthanized if it had not been adopted out. She said Slater was a timid dog that was about 15 pounds underweight when she got him.
Sled Dogs follows a rookie musher going to the Iditarod for the first time it documents a puppy becoming a sled dog and it looks at the laws in Canada around how animals are treated.
The film also makes the assertion that sled dogs are not any different from regular dogs and that tour operators make a distinction that’s not there.
“They say things like sled dogs are different from other dogs” Levitt said “And that’s simply not true.
They’re dogs. They’re dogs like any other dog.”
Brown disagrees. She said she’s watched the dogs at the tour operations and knows they have more energy and drive.
And she notes that you can’t make a dog pull something if it doesn’t want to.
“One thing to always remember is you can’t push a dog” she said. “You can’t make a dog run that doesn’t want to.”
Because Sled Dogs accessed funding through the Canadian Media Fund a co-ordinated effort by dogsled supporters to contact that organization led to a statement issued Dec. 1.
“The CMF does not intervene in the creative or editorial aspects of the productions we fund as this remains the role of the creative teams behind each project” the statement reads.
“Sled Dogs was produced by an established company with a 30-year track record and directed by a filmmaker who has written and directed 13 films many of which have received critical acclaim and both national and international awards” it goes on to say.
MP Jamie Schmale said he was contacted by McCready about the film.
“Tanya has some very real concerns about this film that’s been made. The traile r doesn’t look very balanced so I understand why Tanya would be so concerned” Schmale said.
He said he was waiting to see what came after the film screened and would be looking at the best ways to support local dogsled tour operators.