In the film "Snow Dogs," Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a dentist from sunny Miami who pilots a dog sled in a fictitious Alaskan race called the Arctic Challenge. With a dollop of goofy schmaltz, the movie promises a wintry, feel-good story about how a man who doesn't like dogs is won over by the beautiful, noble animals.
The film, which opens today, is based on "Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod," Gary Paulsen's 1994 account of training for and competing in the famous 1,150-mile endurance challenge. The adaptation, however, is pure Disney.
Still, the movie is failing to warm the hearts of its most icy critics. Margery Glickman, a real-life Miami resident and founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition, claims that sled-dog racing is cruel. She says "Snow Dogs" glorifies the Iditarod and racing, and consequently endorses the relationship between people and dogs in the sport.
Glickman isn't the only one with complaints. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States say that Iditarod dogs are regularly subjected to severe beatings, starvation and overexertion. Critics often call the race the "I-Hurt-a-Dog."
Additionally, the Sled Dog Action Coalition claims that sled-dog pups and dogs who do not perform well enough are routinely clubbed to death, drowned or shot.
Jason Nickle, who raises sled dogs, organizes tours and competes in sprint races on the International Sled Dog Racing Association Circuit, says such occurrences are anomalous and that Iditarod sled dogs are generally some of the most well taken care of animals in the world.
"The dogs run because they love it," Nickle says.
The activists aren't convinced. They say the lighthearted portrayal of sled-dog racing in "Snow Dogs" could misinform children about what they consider to be the cruel, brutal nature of the sport.
Glickman, who formed the Sled Dog Action Coalition three years ago after she witnessed the living and training conditions of sled dogs in Alaska, has issued a press release calling for film critics to note the cruel nature of the Iditarod and sled-dog racing in their reviews of "Snow Dogs." PETA has issued a similar document.
The PETA campaign against "Snow Dogs" first began more than a year and a half ago, just after Disney announced a film based on "Winterdance." The SDAC's action began shortly thereafter.
Predictably, Disney is trying to steer clear of its critics. One strategy is to disassociate the Iditarod, the most well-known dog race in the world, from the fictitious race portrayed in the film. "The race, which isn't the Iditarod, is one element of the film, not the focus. It's a backdrop," says Disney spokeswoman Andrea Marozas. "It's not a documentary; it's a family comedy."
The activists aren't buying it. "In all the ads for this movie it says, 'Based on "Winterdance" by Gary Paulsen,' and it says it in the movie," says Glickman. "And 'Winterdance' is about the Iditarod."
PETA cruelty caseworker Amy Rhodes has seen the trailer and the advertising materials for the movie, but not the film itself. She says that Disney is deflecting. "[The Iditarod] doesn't have to be the main issue of the movie in order to falsely portray the notion that the Iditarod or any similar dog sled race is acceptable," she says. "Including it in the movie, regardless of the extent which it is included, is telling children that using animals for our own means is acceptable, and that is a dangerous message to send children."
"They're brainwashing children into thinking that dog sled racing is acceptable," Glickman says. "If a person loves and cares about their companion animal, the person won't enter that animal in a race that's known for dog deaths and injuries."
According to Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley, 117 dogs have died in 29 races. And during each of the last four years one dog out of 1,000-plus has died -- a mortality rate of less than .1 percent.
"In real life, animals die every day for a lot of different reasons, and so do people," Hooley says. "We're not out to change the way Disney portrays us. It's not meant to be a documentary of the race, for God's sake."
But Glickman says that it's misleading to just look at the number of dogs that have died in the race.
"The dog deaths that happen before the race, when they're training, go unreported, and dogs die after the race and those also go unreported," Glickman says. "Why is all of this happening? Because the mushers are looking for profit and recognition. They're doing it because they're greedy and they're hoping to get some type of recognition if they place well in the race."
(For 2002, the Iditarod has a $600,000 purse. The first-place team will pocket $68,571. Additionally, top competitors commonly receive endorsement deals and financial backing from corporate sponsors.)
The Iditarod's Hooley says the dogs are actually well cared for. "Before the race, each dog has an EKG -- something that 90 percent of the human population will never have in their life," he says. "Each dog has a series of blood tests and vaccinations. There are 35 volunteer veterinarians from around the world who leave their practices to come to the Iditarod and be another set of eyes and ears for the four-legged participants in the race."
Brian Sodergren, an issues specialist with the Humane Society, agrees that veterinary care is improving at the Iditarod. Still, "There have been a large number of abuses and cruel practices," he says.
Some of those cruel practices even end up in the film, Glickman says. Specifically, Glickman objects to a series of scenes where Cuba Gooding Jr. has trouble dominating his alpha canine lead dog, Demon. A number of characters tell Gooding Jr.'s character to bite the dog's ear in order to assert his dominance. That never happens on camera, but Glickman says that the movie implies that he follows their advice off-screen.
"Children will think that that's how you show you're alpha, by biting a dog in the ear," Glickman says. "I think that encourages dog abuse." Glickman also objects to another scene in the film where Gooding Jr.'s character gets a ride in a Volkswagen Beetle towed by a team of dogs. "When dogs pull heavy weight, they can have orthopedic injuries," she says. "And that's actually one of the ways mushers train their dogs, by having them pull cars."
Disney had no further comment.
While the current campaign against "Snow Dogs" might not have a huge impact on the film's box office take, the activists think that one dividend of their efforts is a better educated public. "If nothing else, it heightens awareness of these issues in the media," Glickman says.
And in the past, activists say that awareness has translated into pressure on the race's sponsors, many of which have withdrawn support from the event. According to Glickman, companies who have halted their financial involvement in the race in recent years include Sherwin-Williams, Hills Brothers, Rite Aid, Outback Steakhouse, Safeway, Maxwell House, True Value Hardware, BP Amoco, Tyson Foods, Hormel, Nutro Pet Products, Tropicana, Pizza Hut, Costco, Home Depot, Suiza Foods, Pfizer, Bausch and Lomb and Microsoft.