Fern Levitt is an international award winning documentary writer and director who has interviewed several renowned world leaders. In the past, Ms. Levitt's films centered on stories dealing with human rights but in 2010 following the rescue of her dog Slater, a sled dog who lived chained for over 9 years, her films now focus predominately on animal welfare.
Fern Levitt’s credits include “A Gift of Life”, (1998) which chronicles the struggle of two families whose children need a life saving bone marrow transplant, “Each of Us Has a Name”, (1999) the journey of Canadian teenagers and Holocaust survivors as they tour the former death camps of Poland, winner at the Chicago US International Festival for Best Documentary; “The Little Rock Nine” (2001) the story of nine black students who in 1957 were the first to desegregate an all white school in Little Rock Arkansas, interviews with President Bill Clinton.
“Come Out Fighting” (2002) the story of the 761st, a segregated tank battalion in the second world war that was responsible for liberating several concentration camps in Austria, winner of The Chris Statuette at the Columbus Film Festival, “Sakharov –Conscience of a Country” (2003), known as the Father of the hydrogen bomb and the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize only to be later exiled for 7 years as an enemy of the people, interviews with President Mikhail Gorbachev and winner of Best Historical Documentary at the Houston Film Festival, “Gorbachev’s Revolution” (2004),exclusive interview with former President Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush Sr. and Eduard Shevardnadze, the film explores Gorbachev’s dramatic rise in the Communist Party to the eventual coup which ended his leadership and dissolved the Soviet Union; The Velvet Revolution (2005), the story of Vaclav Havel’s rise from playwright to dissident to the first President of a free Czechoslovakia, nominated for a Gemini for best Biography; Exclusive interview with President Vaclav Havel. My Opposition- The Diaries of Friedrich Kellner (2006), One man’s foresight and opposition to the Nazis destructive forces and years later the trials and tribulations of his Grandson who would rise abovehis tragic childhood to share his Grandfather’s courageous story. 7 Days of Remembrance and Hope (2009) Documentary following the journey of 60 Canadian university students of diverse backgrounds as they visit the former death camps of Poland accompanied by Holocaust survivors.
“Paws for Autism” (2012) is a documentary following two severely autistic children and their families and the changes that occur when a dog comes bouncing into their lives. For Animal Planet. The Palm Effect – In development. (2017) Feature documentary. This film focuses on the plight of the orangutans in Indonesia and the fight of those individuals who are trying to save them from extinction and save the planet from carbon global impact.
In 2010, my husband and I went dog sledding in northern Ontario. I was excited to finally try this quintessential Canadian sport that combined my love for dogs and my love for the wide open wilderness. After an exhilarating sled ride through Algonquin Park, I went back to see where the dogs lived. What I saw was unexpected and distressing – hundreds of dogs all attached to chains several feet long, unable to move beyond their very short restraints. It was an image that I will never forget.One of the staff members of the dog sled operation then told us that if he could not find homes for 30 of the dogs, they were going to “cull” the ones which were no longer “useful”. I was shocked he would openly admit this. I wanted to believe that this was an aberration and not the norm for the sled dog industry.
That day we rescued one of the dogs, Slater, who became part of our family. He had lived on a short chain for nine years. I put that experience to the back of my mind until a year later. In 2011, international media exploded with a story of 100 sled dogs killed in Whistler, British Columbia. A sled dog operator was losing money and his “herd had to be cut in half”. With cries of outrage from the public, the B.C. government declared that the “incident” was an anomaly and announced they would have the strongest animal rights laws in all of Canada.
Two incidences do not make a pattern, but they were enough to make me curious. I wanted to learn more about the way sled dog companies operated. My research on the industry has spanned close to five years. Under Canadian and American laws, dogs are still considered “property” (with slight differences from state to state and province to province). It is legal to chain a dog continually as long as some kind of shelter and food are provided. Killing dogs is allowed, so long as it is done "humanely". These laws are most certainly open to interpretation.
As filming progressed over a period of two years, travelling to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in Canada and Alaska and Colorado in the United States, four storylines emerged: a puppy being trained to be a sled dog in Ontario, a novice musher and his young dogs as they prepared to race the Iditarod, dog sledding in Snowmass, Colorado (Dan MacEachen, the owner of a commercial dog sled operation had been arrested and convicted for animal cruelty), and the aftermath of the Whistler Sled Dog tragedy. I also researched and filmed the re-homing of sled dogs, as it is an alternative to culling.I reached out to veterinarians Dr. Paula Kislak and Dr. Rebecca Ledger and others who had worked with former sled dogs because I repeatedly heard how sled dogs are ‘different’ from regular dogs. I explored the economics of running a sled dog company for profit with consideration for the humane treatment of the animals in Whistler, British Columbia.
Most of the public sees commercial dog sledding sites on the internet with pictures of happy dogs. It is easy to believe that sled dogs are different from pet dogs, that they are well looked after, that they "love what they do" and "live to run". Like everybody else, I had no reason to disbelieve the promotional material.My film became an open quest to find out the truth about the sled dog industry. Without an agenda, we followed the stories as we found them, filming what was in front of us.
People wanted to believe the myths about the sled dogs, so they could run the Iditarod or own a commercial sled dog business, never really questioning if what they were doing was fair to the animals. They often wanted to see their industry through rosecolouredglasses, ignoring testimony from experts because they wanted to continue their dream and their livelihood. But all too often, the treatment of many dogs in the sled dog industry is both cruel and inhumane. Keeping dogs chained, having them live outside, and forcing them to run miles on end is against the basic nature of these animals. Sled dogs are no different than all other dogs. They need the same care and conditions that all dogs need in order to thrive.