Film Review: Sled Dogs

This persuasive documentary about the sled-dog industry focuses on the economics of animal cruelty and aims to inform rather than entertain.
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Dogs are born to run and sled-dog racing is a thrilling celebration of the bond between man and beast: That's the narrative put forth by many of the interviewees featured in Fern Levitt's disturbing film about the toll the sport takes on the animal half of the team. That almost all of the boosters have a stake in their statements is evident, since their livelihoods are tied to the business, particularly Alaska's internationally famous Iditarod, a thousand-mile endurance race. They include veterinarians, politicians whose towns depend on race-related tourism, dog breeders, and owners of resorts built on sled rides and the family-friendly appeal of pups.

But Levitt also interviews veterinarians and local politicians who've allied themselves with journalists, former mushers, animal-welfare professionals and former resort employees (one of whom describes the dogs' living conditions as "like a concentration camp") galvanized by the sadly well-documented abuse of sled dogs. They're uniformly frustrated that even after high-profile, extensively covered scandals like the brutal, secret "culling" of 100 dogs (from a pack of 300) by employees of the Canadian Outdoor Adventures when business fell off following the 2010 Winter Olympics, the bottom line triumphs: Dogsled racing and resorts bring in tourist dollars, and economics repeatedly trump animal welfare.

It's hard not to come away from Levitt's film without hoping it will be as galvanizing as Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 Blackfish, whose case against the use of orcas in sea-parks on grounds that it's systemically cruel and morally wrong helped spark protests and serious ongoing efforts to change the practices of a multi-billion-dollar industry despite the marine mammals' gaping, sharp-toothed maws and flat eyes. At the same time, while Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus retired its elephant acts under intense pressure, the thoroughbred-racing industry has weathered ongoing criticism despite such high-profile incidents as Eight Belles' collapse immediately after she placed in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, followed by trackside euthanization.

Levitt's intention is overtly activist (she adopted an aging dog after taking a dogsled sled ride and getting a glimpse of the conditions in which the animals were kept) and, like Blackfish, Sled Dogs is a blunt tool. To her credit, Levitt makes an effort not to present every single person in the industry as utterly evil. She could have left out footage of Canada's Windrift Kennels owner/operator Gena Pierce crying at the death of one of her dogs, though Pierce's grief is somewhat undermined by the fact that it was one of the filmmakers who drew her attention to the animal's body, frozen at the end of a six-foot chain (the standard length for commercially raised sled dogs) in front of its makeshift doghouse.

And no overt editorializing is required to make Colorado's Krabloonik resort, whose decades-spanning image was built on cuddly canines, look bad. Archival footage and documents pertaining to owner Dan MacEachen's prosecution for animal cruelty speak for themselves, as does Levitt's brief interview with the business' new, like-minded owners. And her footage of industry boosters trying to make the case that the treatment of sled dogs isn't inhumane because they're not regular dogs—they're "superb athletes" born and raised to race—is countered by Seth Sachson, executive director of Aspen Animal Shelter, who adopted a small pack of Krabloonik dogs. He sleds with them and they live indoors, lounging on his sofa: "They're just dogs," he says. "They're just pets."

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