British Columbia

Musher threatens legal action over Sled Dogs documentary

B.C.'s sled dog handlers are 'sick' over a soon-to-air film — Sled Dogs — touted to be the Blackfish of the sled dog industry.

'I have euthanized dogs of my own and I would again if I needed to,' says one operator

Hans Gatt's lead dogs head into a turn just after leaving the official restart of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska, in March 2014. (Reuters)

B.C. and Alberta sled dog handlers say a soon-to-air film, billed as an exposé of the northern dogsled industry, is misleading, and they want it pulled from a film festival.

Sled Dogs has been touted as the Blackfish — a documentary film that exposed the cruel treatment of an orca at San Diego's SeaWorld — of the dogsled industry.

The film documents the lives of racing dogs behind the scenes on the 1,600-kilometre Iditarod. Over the years, at least 140 dogs have died in the race.

But dog handlers say Sled Dogs paints an unfair picture of the industry. They want it pulled from the Whistler Film Festival lineup before the Dec. 3 premiere.

"I threatened legal action because no one from the film had talked with me, seen my kennel or met my dogs," said Megan Routley of Kingmik Dogled Tours, based near Banff National Park.

Routley was furious about the film's trailers, which she said linked to an activist site calling for a "boycott of all things sled dog."

She argues the film depicts the industry as cruel and inhumane, showing misleading scenes of dead dogs piled in an Alaskan kennel run by a hoarder, who mushers say actually sold pets and had no links to the dog racing world.

The film also shows dogs chained and isolated for months in the off-season. 

But dog handlers defend some of the practices, arguing that chaining, or even euthanizing, a dog is not as cruel as it appears.

Chains aren't torture, say mushers

There are very few statistics on the sled dog industry, but at least 100 kennels operate between Alaska, B.C, Alberta and northern U.S. states.

Tim Tedford operates a kennel and recreational dogsled touring business near Kelowna, B.C. He also speaks for the Professional Mushers Association of B.C., which represents about 10 kennels.

He agrees with Routley that the film is one-sided.

Director Fran Levitt's documentary Sled Dogs premieres at the Whistler Film Festival Dec. 3. (Sled Dogs/Fran Levitt)

The association formed in 2011 after news of a sled dog cull in Whistler B.C. sparked widespread anger.

That cull inspired Toronto director Fern Levitt to make her film.

But Tedford said Levitt got it wrong.

He said B.C.'s sled dog care standards are the highest in the world, but the film ignored that. 

Yukon musher Michelle Phillips with one of partner Ed Hopkins' dogs at the 2016 Yukon Quest. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

​"It's in your best interest to have happy, well-socialized sled dogs that love you. They are not little machines," he said.

Dogs must be released daily, but also chained up close enough to each other so they can interact, he said.

He said dog abuse horrifies him, but said he has found no scientific evidence to prove that chaining a dog causes harm. 

Cornell University study suggested that keeping dogs penned together is not necessarily better than tying them up solo. 

'You have to do right by them'

For her part, Levitt believes that many dog mushers, like Tedford, are devoted to their animals. But she argued some lose sight of the dogs' true needs. 

"I feel that the mushers are missing the point: is the commercial dog sledding industry humane?" she asked. 

While Tedford has always decried the controversial cull of the 56 dogs later exhumed in Whistler in 2011, he said sometimes shooting an animal is the most humane thing to do.

Fort McMurray sled dogs train on a dog run in Alberta in April. (Mush McMurray)

"It's not acceptable to shoot or kill healthy dogs in any way," he said.

But if a dog gets sick, old or wounded and there is no veterinarian, he believes it's an appropriate action.

"What if you don't have a needle or a pill? What if you have a dog who has been healthy for 12 years and has never set foot inside a veterinary [office], a sterile, beeping, stainless steel and tile, sort of scary place. Is that really where you want to take him?" said Tedford.

"I have euthanized dogs of my own and I would again if I needed to.

"It's a very difficult thing to do. You love those dogs. They're your family. But you have to do right by them. They've given you their whole life. They've given you their whole being and they do it willingly," he said.


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?