'Sled Dogs' filmmakers ask public to watch film before making assumptions

The director and executive producer of Sled Dogs say they've presented a balanced, honest portrayal of commercial sled dog operations and that their audience can decide if mushing's time has passed.

Director, executive producer say Sled Dogs is 'balanced, honest' presentation of the life of sled dogs

A team starts out on the Iditarod sled dog race. The Sled Dogs crew followed the 2016 race for the documentary. (Nathaniel Wilder/Reuters )

The makers of a controversial documentary on commercial sled dog operations say they have presented an accurate account of what happens in those operations and it's up the public to decide if it is a humane way to treat dogs.

"We don't want anyone to lose their livelihood, but if your livelihood is harmful, people need to know that. If it's harmful to the animals, then you've got to stop and say: 'wait a minute,'" said Arnie Zipursky, the executive producer of Sled Dogs.

Director Fern Levitt adopted Slater from an Ontario dog sledding business, where he had about a year left as a lead dog. (Fern Levitt)
Dog mushers in Canada and the United States say the film portrays the industry as inhumane by focusing on extreme examples of dog abuse.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell complained to the Canada Media Fund (CMF) — which contributed more than $400,000 to the cost of the documentary — that the makers may have used false pretences to obtain funding and interviews.  The CMF is reviewing that complaint.

Fern Levitt, the film's director, said the accusation is not true.

 "When we went to film we told the people there exactly what we were doing. We wanted to follow a puppy being trained to be a sled dog, and that's exactly what we did. We wanted to follow a young musher who was training his dogs to run the Iditarod and that is what we did. This is a pure documentary," said Levitt.

For his part, Bagnell has yet to see the film, and producer Zipursky is asking the public to wait for its wide release before making up their minds.

"From what I've heard — we've only had one screening which was the world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival — is that it's a very balanced look at this industry," said Zipursky.

Iditarod and Yukon Quest racer Michelle Phillips called on Yukon politicians to speak out about the documentary. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon Quest)
The public only sees photos of dogs pulling sleds, Levitt said, but in reality, most sled dogs are kept chained outdoors for the majority of their lives.

"The continual chaining of any species, dog, elephant, any species at all is cruel and inhumane and people are responding to the fact of animals being used as entertainment because what we found out is when animals are used as entertainment their welfare is compromised," she said.

Zipursky said the documentary tells four stories: that of the Iditarod musher; a sled dog operation in Ontario; the abuse of dogs at a Colorado dog lot; and the slaughter of 43 sled dogs in Whistler, B.C., after the 2010 Winter Olympics that resulted in nine convictions for causing unnecessary pain to dogs.

Musher Patrick Beall was the Iditarod musher and subject of the documentary. (Patrick Beall/Facebook)
He said the Iditarod musher and Ontario operator love their animals, but the public can decide whether what they do is humane after seeing the documentary.

He said the film will be shown on the CBC's documentary channel in 2017.

Zipursky said promotional material on the internet that portrayed Sled Dogs as an "exhilarating look" at dogsledding and a "majestic ride" was updated in the past few days.

with files from Sandi Coleman