The 39th Aspen Filmfest recently rejected the submission of the Sled Dogs documentary, which features the story of the area’s controversial Krabloonik sled dog kennel operation. Aspen Film Program Associate, Deisree Andrews, stated that, “the film was beautifully composed, completely compelling, and brings to light an important and little known topic.” Though the Aspen Filmfest boasts that they “offer one-of-a-kind enrichment opportunities through educational outreach,” and that they are “working to enlighten, enrich, educate, and entertain through film,” it is clear that they do not feel compelled to educate the public about humane mushing and the current state of the mushing industry, especially within their own community.
For example, in the documentary, former Krabloonik musher, Zach Mills, stated that, “first rookie year we had 23 dogs, that we put up on death row, we called it. They were all the old dogs that were gonna be euthanized after the mushers left. All the dogs that couldn’t run, they used to be shot.”
Another former Krabloonik musher, Curtis Hungate, stated that, “once I pulled into the kennel, and my lead dog attacked a puppy – in front of the guests. Well once the guests left the yard, Dan (MacEachen) came over and picked up the puppy and set it in front of the dog that attacked it. And it attacked it again, and he started hitting it with the chain. And he hit it with the chain until it dropped the puppy.”
With previous employees stating that they contacted the police and enforcers of the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) about ongoing abuse and neglect, but were completely ignored, it’s no surprise that the Aspen Filmfest wishes to sweep this story under the rug. However, the point of most film festivals is to bring important, controversial, and little-known issues to the forefront of media. Film festivals use the most appropriate language for audiences – visual recording – and can be accessible almost everywhere because of the internet. The fact that the Aspen Filmfest chose to deny viewing of a film that brings to light a major issue within their community is going against the very thing that they, as an organization, stand for.
Aspen & Snowmass, Colorado, made headlines in 2013 when Dan MacEachen – owner of the largest commercial sled dog operation in the contiguous United States (Krabloonik) – was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty. However, this was not the first time that issues of cruelty and neglect were discovered at Krabloonik kennels. MacEachen pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges in 1988 for “viciously beating one of his dogs.” (http://bit.ly/2wC1oNE)
Both patrons and former employees have not been shy about bringing up issues of abuse and neglect in public forums. Just a quick scroll through TripAdvisor shows concerned citizens speaking out throughout the years:
In December of 2014, MacEachen sold Krabloonik kennels to a current employee, Dan Phillips – the Director of Operations since 2013. Phillips also worked as a musher/handler for MacEachen from November of 2001 to May of 2002. Shortly after the sale, Dan Phillips’ mentor – Dan MacEachen – passed away. But what teachings and practices did he leave behind in Phillips?
With good reason, locals still urge tourists not to support this kennel operation:
A TripAdvisor report from Isaac, from December 27th, 2015, also reads: “The sledding was not what we imagined. They changed ownership/management recently. With that change they removed 2 dogs from each ride which led to a slow ride throughout the experience with the dogs often stopping for rest. Average speed of i’d say 5 MPH. We witnessed another sleigh run over a dog and horribly injure him. Terrible experience and heartbreaking. The dogs also use the bathroom while running leading to an excellent smell during the ride.” He also stated that, upon arrival, “I then saw the manager pouring liquor into his coffee! Nice start to the experience.” (http://bit.ly/2wQe5EE)
Not only was Dan Phillips present during years of abuse under MacEachen, but in a December 2015 article in Modern Luxury magazine, he boasted coming changes that we have still not seen take shape (http://bit.ly/2wr5AEC).
For starters, there were 255 dogs at Krabloonik when Dan Phillips took over in December 2014. In his Modern Luxury magazine interview, Phillips stated that his goal was to get the population cap to 180 dogs. Though a message inquiring as to their current population count was received on September 17th 2017, they declined to respond. As of December 30th 2015, however, there were reportedly 211 dogs on site. Another question we have is: in that year since Phillips purchased the kennel, where did 44 dogs go? A member of the Krabloonik Advisory Board was kind enough to take our phone call on September 18th 2017, and reports that the kennel currently has approximately 203 dogs – 180 working sled dogs, with the remainder available for adoption. They also noted that the Aspen Animal Shelter has been actively working with Krabloonik to get retired dogs adopted.
On April 8th, 2005, Tony Vagneur wrote in his Aspen Daily Times editorial, in defense of Krabloonik’s history of culling, “It may be more cruel to adopt an adult sled dog out to a new home than it is to euthanize it.” (http://bit.ly/2f5W0vJ)
The British Columbia Sled Dog Code of Practice states, “Sled dogs that have been inappropriately socialized often have trouble acclimating to basic daily household occurrences such as television noises, climbing stairs, and the arrival of strangers at the door.” (http://bit.ly/2vvzNBV)
This is the problem with the current state that the industry is in. When sled dogs are humanely cared for, trained, and socialized – they have no trouble moving smoothly between house life and life on the trail. However, this is not the current norm in our sport. That is why sled dogs who are fortunate enough to enter rescue often require some degree of psychological rehabilitation.
Thus, we ask ourselves – if they are in fact downsizing – where are the Krabloonik dogs going? Have they been spayed and neutered before being rehomed? What sort of contractual agreement has been put in place to make sure that the dogs are not simply dumped if they become too much to handle for the new owners? What sort of record-keeping is in place to keep track of which dogs go where? Though the statements of the Advisory Board are reassuring, we would still like to hear directly from Krabloonik regarding the system they have in place for rehoming their retired dogs.
Phillips stated in his Modern Luxury magazine interview that they “plan to implement therapeutic training programs with at-risk youth and the Wounded Warrior Project.” We reached out to the national Wounded Warrior Project on September 14th 2017, and they recently directed us to the Colorado Springs chapter for answers. However, in an online statement on September 27th 2017, Phillips admitted that he never got involved in working with the Wounded Warrior Project. However, the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork did respond to us almost immediately with an answer. Phillips stated that Krabloonik would “hold a mushing course for eighth-graders from the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.” According to the school, this never happened. A spokesperson said that the school has not worked at all with Krabloonik kennels.
Phillips also stated in his Modern Luxury magazine interview that they “have already implemented an open-door policy, welcoming visitors year-round to see the dogs and kennels. ” However, we were recently in Snowmass doing an interview on the Sled Dogs Documentary for ABC Nightline. Upon contacting a member of the Krabloonik Advisory Board, he assured us that he could give Phillips a quick call and get us a tour. However, Phillips told him he was too busy with the dogs, and asked us to contact him directly if interested. Therefore, we sent him a message on Krabloonik’s Facebook messenger page asking, “do you think we could swing by and meet the dogs and see some of the improvements you guys have made?” This simple request was met with a resounding “absolutely not,” and “I won’t have you anywhere near my dogs.” Clearly not the open-door policy discussed in the interview. When we drove to the public lot that led to the gated off chain yard compound, this is what we saw:
No people, just chained dogs. Sporadic, pitiful attempts at shade, provided by a few tarps. You can clearly see they provide little to no actual shade. Only a small fraction of the 203 dogs can be seen from the road – the yard slopes down a hillside hidden by trees. Chains are still the primary means of confinement – the primary issue which prevents Krabloonik from being considered a humane mushing establishment. Other than the tarps, we see that some of wooden houses have been replaced by plastic. We’ve been told that dogs beyond the parking lot view are still housed in the old wooden houses, however, and some are clearly visible in one of the photographs.
We shared our experience and photos online, and asked for comments from the animal welfare community. Tamira Ci Thayne, founder of Dogs Deserve Better, had this to say:
In looking at photos of the ‘new’ Krabloonik, I am reminded of the argument one must always face when looking at so-called ‘improvements’ in the lives of chained dogs: how do they actually affect the day to day life of the chained dog, or are they merely a band-aid to allow someone to feel they’ve made some difference? One must remember what a chained dog most wants is socialization with humans and/or other dogs, to live in the company of others, to experience freedom. Any chained conditions, no matter whether they have improved slightly or not, still doesn’t meet the basic humane requirements that all dogs need and deserve.
It is also my understanding that the new and improved Krabloonik is refusing to allow dog advocates visual access to the dogs. That’s a red flag to me – for those with nothing to hide, hide nothing. Any business or non-profit who is working with animals has a moral obligation to allay fears and accusations through an open door policy. If dogs are being treated humanely, then Krabloonik should have nothing to hide.
Jennifer Kannady of In Defense of Animals, and a Campaign Director for the Federal Break The Chains Campaign (seeking to outlaw dog chaining on a federal level), has this to say:
Land of the free… Home of the brave…
Something we Americans have grown up hearing repeatedly. When we think of freedom in the United States, what comes to mind? I guarantee you that visions of man’s best friend languishing on the ends of 10, 6, and – yes – sometimes 3-foot chains probably don’t come to mind. Yet, this is precisely what one can witness all across this country.
Included among these hapless victims, in some of our northern states, unbeknownst to the majority of the public – and tucked away from prying eyes – are sled dogs. In a town called Snowmass, Colorado, canine mushing is celebrated as one of the lifelines, the heartbeat of their winter tourism industry. The visiting public sees glamorous fur coats, rustic sleds, and hears tales of heroic, life-saving serum runs. All the while, the dogs have a different story to tell – if only the public would listen. A story of nagging hunger; vain attempts at comfort from freezing temperatures in winter and stifling heat in summers; seeking refuge in thin plastic barrels, or dilapidated wooden boxes; and endless hours of loneliness and boredom. There is a tragic misconception regarding sled dogs – that they are built of steel, tough-as-nails athletes who crave confronting nature’s extremes with mushing. However, this thinking inflicts misery beyond imagination to these majestic beings.
Please, be a voice for these beautiful dogs – learn their story and share with others.
Please watch the Sled Dogs documentary and join our mission to end the plight of sled dogs – and all dogs nationwide – suffering on chains.
Numerous people featured in the Sled Dogs documentary were recently interviewed by ABC Nightline as a follow-up on the Krabloonik cruelty case and Aspen Filmfest rejection, and the segment is estimated to air in late September or early October. Dan Phillips reportedly let ABC film at his Krabloonik kennels, showing dogs playing off-chain. While we understand that this may seem like a breakthrough to the general public when it airs – it is important to look beyond the short amount of footage. Even if chained dogs are permitted to play freely for a couple of hours daily, or weekly, it still doesn’t negate the fact that they are chained for the majority of the day, the majority of the year, and the majority of their lives – if they are even lucky enough to live to their full life expectancy without being culled.
The World Sleddog Association states that, “unfortunately, in some countries it is permitted to keep dogs on chains. Nevertheless, this practice should be rejected by all sled dog organizations nationally and internationally. Sled dog organizations should engage with mushers practicing this with the aim to abolish this practice.”
Indeed, much of Europe outlaws chaining – including the chaining of sled dogs – and still hosts amazing sled dog racing events and has mushers who breed world-class sled dogs. North America is, sadly, falling far behind on animal welfare standards, especially for sled dogs. Even in states or municipalities where chaining is outlawed as an inhumane practice, you will often find clauses which specifically exempt sled dogs from these laws.
In Defense of Animals is currently spearheading a campaign to outlaw chaining on a federal level. We are working closely with Campaign Director, Jennifer Kannady, to insure that all dogs – not just pet dogs – will be protected by this important legislation. If you’d like to join our fight, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can fill you in.
As a final note, and as food for thought: when the Sled Dogs documentary first aired at the Whistler Film Festival in 2016, it was met with heavy retaliation and threats from the mushing industry, and petitions for the festival to not show the film. However, unlike the Aspen Filmfest, Whistler prevailed and went on to tell the horror story of their own sled dog concentration camp – Howling Dog Tours (http://bit.ly/2fpBXfJ).
In a release, Vancouver Humane Society, which was interviewed for the film, says it’s important that people see what the documentary reveals and make up their own minds. The organization campaigned for a ban on sled dog tours and races in 2011.
In response to calls for the film to be pulled from the festival lineup Whistler Film Festival (WFF) organizers say they’re comfortable the documentary is well researched and gives voice to different points of view.
What will it take for Aspen & Snowmass to stand up for the welfare of their sled dogs? Do we have to wait for a massacre, like the one in Whistler, for the Krabloonik dogs to finally have a fighting chance at humane care?