The impact of the documentary Blackfish on SeaWorld marine parks and the marine park business in general is well-known. The film was a turning point in attitudes toward marine mammal captivity, with public outrage appearing to grow exponentially every time the film was screened. Support for SeaWorld dropped considerably and the outlook for the industry looks bleak.
Now, another powerful documentary may be about to do the same for another animal-dependent business: the commercial sled dog industry. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film, representing the position of the Vancouver Humane Society, which is opposed to the commercial use of dogs in the sled dog industry. I attended the premiere.)
Sled Dogs, directed by Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt, premiered at B.C.'s Whistler Film Festival on December 3, sharing the top documentary award with another film and winning Levitt the Best-Female-Directed Documentary award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the treatment of dogs used in commercial sled dog tours and races. What it reveals is going to shock audiences. Those attending the premiere sat, many in tears, through horrific scenes of sick and injured dogs being pushed beyond their limits in Alaska's 1000-mile Iditarod race; of hundreds of dogs chained to posts for hours-on-end in miserable conditions; of the grizzly exhumation of dog remains from the infamous Whistler sled dog massacre of 2010.
Robert Fawcett, seen here Nov. 22, 2012, pled guilty to a single count of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, two years after the slaughter of 56 sled dogs near Whistler, according to media reports. (Photo: REUTERS/Ben Nelms)
Perhaps just as powerful as some of the film's harrowing footage are the little-known facts emerging from its interviews and research: The Iditarod's chief veterinarian confirming that about a third of the dogs fail to finish the race. The fact that the actual killing of the 56 healthy sled dogs in Whistler was not illegal and that investigators had to find forensic evidence of suffering in order to bring charges. The fact that it remains legal in Canada to shoot surplus dogs if a sled dog operator cannot find them homes. The fact that it remains legal for operators in Canada to keep sled dogs chained for long periods (and there is no independent inspection regime to check on dogs' condition).
The film challenges the oft-stated claim of the sled dog industry that, because they are bred for endurance, sled dogs are unique "athletes" and can be treated differently from other dogs. Veterinarians and animal behaviourists quoted in the film eviscerate this myth, explaining that all dogs have behavioural needs that are compromised by chaining for long periods or being pushed beyond their physical and emotional limits. It becomes clear that sled dog businesses are not celebrating the dogs' unique hardiness. They are exploiting it.
It's likely animal lovers everywhere will be outraged.
One of the most compelling stories told in the film concerns the fate of the 153 dogs that survived the Whistler massacre and were transferred to a non-profit operation, the Whistler Sled Dog company. The company, despite a herculean effort and substantial volunteer support, found it impossible to run a profitable operation without compromising the dogs' welfare. Ultimately, with the help of other animal welfare groups, the company succeeded in re-homing all the dogs. The film's final scenes show a reunion of a group of these dogs, now happy members of devoted families -- with no need to prove they are super-athletes.
Sled Dogs has already drawn criticism and opposition from the sled dog industry and, no doubt, a fierce and protracted debate will ensue. The film will be featured in more film festivals and will ultimately be broadcast on CBC's documentary channel and made available for public screenings.
As the film's revelations about the sled dog industry become widely known, it's likely animal lovers everywhere will be outraged and animal welfare organizations will take up the cause, which is to see the end of commercial sled dog tours and races.
It's a position the Vancouver Humane Society has held for years and one that the public can easily support by refusing to patronize commercial sled dog tours and races. Dogs don't need to be mythologized. They just need to be loved, respected, treated well and given the chance to express their full range of behaviours.
They just need to be dogs.
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