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disney and sled dogs

01 September 2011

Cruelty to Sled Dogs: A Four-Season Event

Disney and movie theater operators love sled dogs. The entertainment giant has loads of experience (2002’s Snow Dogs and 2006’s Eight Below) making feel-good movies about sled dogs.

These movies are made because they sell tickets and metric tons of high-margin popcorn. The reality, though, for the animals whose lives inspire Disney’s screenwriters is a bit different.

Sled Dog operation in Canada

not a lot of shade for these sled dogs on a 92 degree summer day in the humidity of northern ontario

When we were up in Canada in July, we drove by a local sled dog operation while heading out to a secret blueberry patch. It was about 92 degrees, with humidity well over 90 percent. There must have been 90-110 dogs living across 4-5 entirely unshaded acres. The living was large.

Each dog was chained next to a wooden platform on which stood a plastic barrel. The barrel was home sweet home. A metal water can hung just in front of the entrance foyer. The dogs had the option of sleeping on plastic, wood or dirt. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and at severe odds with my earlier memories of the sled dog industry.

A Rocky Mountain High

I took a sled dog trip in February 1995 outside Banff, Alberta. The scenery was incredible. Everything was huge; the mountains, the snowflakes, and the big sky. The food was great. The majority of participants were Germans in Calgary for a business conference. They were almost caricatures–drinking schnapps and robustly singing for the snow-covered fir trees. Think a snowy Oktoberfest minus the lederhosens and busty frauleins.

It was a hell of a good outing.

The guides, too, seemed to genuinely love the dogs, and the dogs appeared to genuinely enjoy running along the trails. What I’m sure none of us (the guests) knew then was that death seems indivisible from the sled dog industry.

The Bottom Line is Really Low

Life as a sled dog frankly sucks. I can’t think of too many existences where your quality of life is as miserable.

Life as a sled dog is a bit like life as an Irish poet. It’s a miserable existence and then you die. Maybe it’s a natural death. Or maybe you’re just shot, stabbed or garroted. Here’s some of the evidence:

Krabloonik Kennel Killings

In 2005, Krabloonik Kennel, an Aspen, CO operation that is billed as the largest mushing business in the continental US, disproved the old saw that any publicity is good publicity when a story leaked that it kills as many as 35 dogs every year. Outraged dog lovers launched Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs, an advocacy website to promote a little common decency for the animals.

Whistler Sled Dog Executions

Earlier this year, a media furor arose due to the mass killing of sled dogs in British Columbia, and the filing of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder work compensation claim by the guy who freely admitted to the execution. ESPN published a follow-up report (text and audio) last month. There is an on-going investigation that may produce criminal charges.

I don’t know how anyone could work in an industry like this, although I’m certain that many tour companies operate on a slightly higher moral plane and avoid Srebrenica-like executions. Still, the culling cited in both Krabloonik and Whistler events just seems like the unavoidable underbelly of an otherwise romantic and picturesque business.

If you turned the life of sled dogs into yet another movie, you could take two approaches.

Sled Dog Millionaire

Let’s start with a Hollywood feel-good approach. You’ve seen a variation of this story before. Disney, who else, will make it.

In Sled Dog Millionaire, the young pup wins the Iditarod race to earn a lucrative pet food endorsement contract. Everyone, even the dogs, has straight white teeth and a flawless complexion. The hunky male dog trainer successfully courts the PETA investigator who has traveled to Alaska to determine whether sled dog racing is cruel. He convinces her it is not. They kiss as the credits roll. Expect the theme park attraction to shortly follow.

Sled Dog chained to post

ready to go into makeup and get my hair done just as soon as i get the hell out of here

Slum Dog Sled Dog

Slum Dog Sled Dog is from Sony Pictures, a company unafraid to release films with a grittier view of reality (think El Mariachi). Sony’s interpretation is a lot edgier, being a heavily realistic version of life as a sled dog. There are no scenes about victories won or disappointment avoided.

The dog trainer does not get the girl. He fails. Instead, he picks up a six pack on the drive home to his mobile home. The food the dogs eat twice a day is cheap and full of empty calories. They sleep outside in the summer heat and winter cold. A dozen of them are shot in early May to reduce operating expenses.

This film will not be a hit. If given broad distribution, this film will kill the sled dog mushing industry.

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