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WFF film reignites dogsledding debate

Sled Dogs premiered in Whistler amid industry backlash



A polarizing documentary that played the Whistler Film Festival (WFF) last weekend has reignited the debate over the ethics of dogsledding.

Fern Levitt's Sled Dogs, billed as an exposé of the industry, sparked controversy even before it had its world premiere at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Saturday, Dec. 3. Mushers from across B.C., Alberta and Alaska spoke out against the film, claiming the trailer unfairly paints dogsledding as cruel and inhumane, and focuses on a few isolated incidents.

At least one musher, as well as officials from Alaska's Iditarod race, has claimed they were duped into appearing in a film that was critical of the industry. Another Alberta-based operator has threatened to sue the filmmakers.

In a statement provided to Pique, local Whistler musher Jaime Hargreaves of Trappers Run Dog Sled Adventures called the film "immoral and despicable," saying it failed to show both sides.

"There are good people, good handlers and good kennels," she wrote. "We do much more than run dogs. Our pack, canines and humans alike come together for a common goal, we have a purpose. We show the world how to come together as a unit through teamwork, co-operation, trust and love."

But one former sled-dog operator feels the documentary only scratches the surface of the abuses taking place in the industry.

"We thought it was pretty middle of the road, it isn't hard-hitting at all. To go into that movie, you have to read between the lines," said Sue Eckersley, who appeared in the film. Eckersley launched the Whistler Sled Dog Co. five years ago following the 2010 cull of 56 dogs by the manager of Whistler-based Howling Dog Tours, Bob Fawcett.

"This accusation against (Levitt) that it's all about slandering the industry (is unfair). She's definitely anti-dogsledding now, but I think through the process of her investigation, she's seen what is out there. But to be honest, she's only seen the tip of the iceberg.

"I said it in the film and I'll say it now: the industry's an abomination."

Eckersley's goal was to be a model in the industry for the humane treatment of its animals, but the company folded after just two years when she became convinced it was impossible to run a dogsledding operation ethically.

"In trying to do it humanely, we were putting private money into the company to maintain the standards for the dogs that we felt somewhat comfortable with, but at the end of the day, we didn't even feel like we were taking good enough care of these dogs," she added. All of the Whistler Sled Dog Co. dogs have since been adopted into homes.

The film centres on the animals taking part in the 1,600-kilometre Iditarod, an annual race that has led to the deaths of at least 140 dogs over the years. It also depicts dogs chained for long periods in the offseason.

Hargreaves said the dogs in her care lead comfortable lives, with up to six hours a day of free time in the summer, and are adopted into homes if they prefer "the couch life." She said she has helped rescue more than 100 dogs in recent years.

"These dogs live in their natural state; they are in a pack, they belong with other dogs, speaking dog, playing dog and being a dog," wrote Hargreaves. "If nothing else, I hope what people can take away from this movie is that there are good and bad people out there and to make sure they do a little research before making a decision on who or who not to support."

Sled Dogs took home the award for Best Female-Directed Documentary and tied for the World Documentary Award at the 16th annual Whistler Film Festival.