Documentary Advocates to Let the ‘Sled Dogs’ Out

A scene from the documentary “Sled Dogs” by Fern Levitt shows the hardships of the dog sledding competition.

If your only point of reference for dog sledding is the 2002 Cuba Gooding Jr. movie “Snow Dogs,” documentarian Fern Levitt wants you to know that it’s not all fun and games. For the dogs involved, dog sledding is an incredibly demanding sport that has crossed the line into animal cruelty.

NYU’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and the New York City Bar Animal Law Committee co-hosted a screening of the documentary, “Sled Dogs,” about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Levitt, the movie’s director; Executive Producer Arnie Zipursky and Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells.

The 2017 documentary unveils the unethical treatment of sled dogs in the mushing business and the cruel truths of Alaska’s famous Iditarod — “the last great race.” Akin to “Blackfish,” this documentary aims to raise awareness about the mistreatment of animals. The film confidently reveals issues with the dog sledding industry. However, a few technical aspects and decisions are overlooked.

Some elements of the film’s production, including cinematography and music, feel generic at times. Nonetheless, the way in which the documentary immerses the viewer in the dog sledding world is incredibly interesting.


The film sometimes misses the point, an admittedly difficult feat when dealing with such a topic as severe and controversial as animal cruelty. As a documentary, the film doesn’t present anything technically or artistically outstanding, but it does deliver an important truth about animal cruelty in dog sledding.

The Q&A portion of the event allowed for deeper insight into the documentary and the filmmaker’s personal activism. Levitt, Zipursky and Wells echoed that as a result of their efforts, more people are becoming aware of the sport’s cruelty. In fact, many big funders of the industry are dropping out. They went on to say that although politicians and legislation haven’t exactly met the public’s opinion on animal cruelty, local activism and city laws are helping to save more animals.

One point Levitt addressed in the Q&A was people’s self-blinding nature. Her plan was to tackle this fault directly, to shock viewers into helping these animals and to connect it to the financial impacts of these choices.

“Hit ‘em where it hurts,” Levitt said of her strategy. “In the pocketbook, spread the issue like ‘Blackfish’ so that these dogs can get help.”

Levitt also acknowledged the distorted love between the dog owners and their dogs: to them, the dogs are closer to property than family.

“Loving something is putting its well-being first and being aware enough to take care of it,” Levitt said in a Q&A session. “But at the end of the day, people are selfish and want what they want, sometimes without even thinking.”

Levitt finished by noting the censorship she’s encountered in her attempts to spread her message — many of her screenings have been denied and she was almost sued — but she is steadfast and optimistic, ready to face those challenges because she believes in her cause.


A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 5 print edition. Email Tristen Calderon at [email protected]



  1. Thank you for hosting a screening of the documentary, “Sled Dogs”. In the film, the stark contrast of Alaska’s beauty to the way the dogs are treated was, to me, a refreshing break to the harsh reality of these dogs’ existence. The thing that was upsetting to me was when Iditarod rookie rejected the advice of the veterinarian to drop his dog.

    Iditarod (as well as the Yukon Quest, which started Saturday) should end. Five dogs died last year. Four of the dogs due to the race, bringing the known total deaths to 151. This averages about 3 dogs per year. Also, about half the dogs don’t finish, due to illness, injury, exhaustion, etc.

    It is morally unjustifiable to have an entertainment activity that is expected to kill dogs. People should boycott these unnecessary races, and the sponsors should pull their sponsorship.

  2. Thank you so much for including Fern and her important documentary in your activities! As someone who has been in sled dog sports for twenty years, I can tell you that Sled Dogs brings up longstanding problems in our sport that need to be addressed. There are too many accepted cruelties that have been going on for far too long. Mass chaining and factory farming of dogs for races and tourism are two of the larger problems that need to be abolished.

    With so many minds working together to raise the standards of sled dog welfare, we are finally achieving lasting change – and a whole lot more to hopefully come! Thank you for being a part of it all!

  3. Unfortunately, in the film, claims made by Stu Nelson, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, aren’t corrected by anyone giving the facts. He portrays the Iditarod as an event in which dogs get good veterinary care. They don’t.

    Mushers often blast through checkpoints, so dogs don’t get physical examinations. In some cases, dogs who have been at checkpoints for hours have died soon after leaving.

    Iditarod veterinarians allow sick and injured dogs to race. In a recent Iditarod, one of Lance Mackey’s male dogs ripped out all of his 16 toenails trying to get to a female who was in heat. This type of broken toenail is extremely painful. But veterinarians allowed Mackey to continue to race him. Imagine the agony the dog was forced to endure.

    Here’s another example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. To make matters worse, kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.

    Nelson claimed that 30 percent of the dogs are dropped at checkpoints. That’s inaccurate. On average, fifty percent of the dogs are left at checkpoints because they’re injured, sick or exhausted.



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