It’s easy to fall in love with the animals in “Sled Dogs.” It’s thornier to sift through the words of the handlers and mushers — many of whom seem to genuinely care for the dogs — and determine how pervasive abuse is in dog-sledding ventures.
The filmmaker Fern Levitt says that her research began with no agenda but that as she saw more abuse, her film took shape, along with a desire to shut down the industry and find homes for the dogs. She makes a moving argument, introducing us to animals who start training as puppies and often end up tethered to a short chain — when they aren’t pulling tourists or racing. Sadder still are the cases of dogs who are killed when they are no longer useful, like the 100 animals shot by a recreational sledding company near Whistler, British Columbia.
In Alaska, the 1,000-mile Iditarod, from Anchorage to Nome, is the pinnacle of the sport. According to lore, the inspiration for the race was an emergency run to deliver serum to Nome, which was on the brink of a diphtheria epidemic. But that was a relay, taking on fresh mushers and dogs periodically, whereas Iditarod racers use a single team.
These dogs are portrayed as elite athletes, born to run, but the film points out that they are asked to, in effect, run a marathon day after day for the course of the Iditarod. There are disturbing scenes from the trail of dogs who cannot go farther and must be carried to the veterinarians at the next checkpoint.
Ms. Levitt went on a sled ride once, and after a look behind the scenes, took a dog home with her. She will make you want to do the same.
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