‘The industry’s an abomination,’ says former sled-dog operator 

Controversial film, Sled Dogs, premieres tonight at WFF amidst industry backlash

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO BY JOHN FRENCH - Whistler Sled Dog. Co dogs pull a sled back in 2011. The company was folded after two years of operations when director Sue Eckersley said she realized it was impossible to run a doglsedding operation ethically.
  • File photo by John French
  • Whistler Sled Dog. Co dogs pull a sled back in 2011. The company was folded after two years of operations when director Sue Eckersley said she realized it was impossible to run a doglsedding operation ethically.

A former sled-dog operator is speaking out against the industry on the eve of the Whistler premiere of a controversial film that exposes the dark side of dogsledding.

Sue 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.

The 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 Eckersley 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 said. All of the Whistler Sled Dog. Co. dogs have since been adopted into homes.

Eckersley’s comments come just hours before the world premiere of Fern Levitt’s controversial new documentary, Sled Dogs, at the Whistler Film Festival (WFF). Billed as an exposé of the industry, mushers from across B.C., Alberta and Alaska claim the film’s trailer unfairly paints dogsledding as cruel and inhumane, focusing on a few isolated incidents.

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

“I threatened legal action because no one from the film had talked with me, seen my kennel or met my dogs,” Megan Routley, of Kingmik Dogled Tours near Banff, told the CBC this week.

But Eckersley, who appears in the film and watched a late version of it with the director of the Victoria Humane Society, believes the documentary only scratches the surface of the abuses taking place in the sled-dog world.

“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,” she noted. “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. You don’t let a filmmaker in — it doesn’t matter what they tell you — if you know that if a normal person saw what you were doing, they would be appalled.

“I said it in the film and I’ll say it now: the industry’s an abomination.”

The movie 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 in isolation for long periods in the offseason.

Mushers have defended chaining, or tethering as it’s sometimes called, as necessary for a sled dog’s socialization. Eckersley said her company refused to chain up its stable of nearly 200 sled dogs, instead housing them in kennels. Even still, she believed the dogs weren’t getting the level of interaction that “intelligent, sentient beings deserve.” A 2001 study by Cornell University came to no consensus on whether penning dogs together was necessarily better than chaining them up individually.

Whistler Film Festival programming director Paul Gratton has vowed to go ahead with Saturday night’s screening of Sled Dogs, telling an Alaskan news outlet yesterday he was amazed “that people are trying to stop a public screening of a film that hasn’t been seen.

“It’s not like I was getting death threats or anything crazy like that, but people were very upset over a movie that they hadn’t seen, because the world premiere is happening here,” Gratton told Alaska Public Media. “And, I understand that a two-minute trailer that the producer supplied to us, is, by it’s very nature, designed to sell tickets. And I don’t think it represents the film. My personal feeling is that if it had been a mindless, hysterical, hatchet job against the industry, I wouldn’t have shown it.”

Sled Dogs plays at the Maury Young Arts Centre at 9:45 p.m. Tickets are available at www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.

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