2017-01-26 / Front Page

Animal activists object to film

Sled team owner responds to Biddeford WinterFest protest
By Anthony Aloisio Contributing Writer

Biddeford native Emilee Orsi worked in Orland this summer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on a campaign about SeaWorld. Orsi provided food and water to Baby Girl, a dog that belonged to a homeless man, on a regular basis while in Orlando. (Courtesy photo) Biddeford native Emilee Orsi worked in Orland this summer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on a campaign about SeaWorld. Orsi provided food and water to Baby Girl, a dog that belonged to a homeless man, on a regular basis while in Orlando. (Courtesy photo) BIDDEFORD/GORHAM – The national news in the recent weeks that a dog was allegedly mistreated during the filming of a soon-to-be-released movie has prompted local animal rights proponents to boycott the movie’s release in the area, as well as to participate in an information campaign to raise awareness about animal abuse.

In the past two weeks a video spread on the web, on national news sites and through social media, showing a dog actor on the set of “A Dog’s Purpose” being forced into turbulent water in spite of its violent struggle to stay on ground.

“Since that video clip has surfaced, edited or not, the footage that we did see in the order that we saw it was enough for us to not want to support it,” said Cassandra Grant, a volunteer with Lucky Pup Rescue, a southern Maine animal rescue organization.

“The animal treatment in that video was horrendous,” said Emilee Orsi, of Gorham, who plans to protest screenings of the movie locally.

Both Orsi and Grant said that the context of the events in the video could not make the dog’s treatment any less abusive.

“What you see is what you see,” Orsi said.

Additionally, Orsi rejects arguments that the treatment was did not suffice abuse.

“There’s people saying, this dog is going to do the same thing if you force them into a bath tub,” she said. “My dog hates baths, the word ‘bath’ sends her cowering into the other room. But a bath is something that is calm, it’s for their hygiene, it’s not forcing them to perform for our entertainment.”

Orsi has worked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the past, and she said that her view is more broad than the incident with this movie.

“My standpoint, being affiliated with PETA, is that animals shouldn’t be used for our entertainment,” she said. “They’re being overworked, they don’t need it. Animals should have their own rights, and their own free will. (Pets are) companion animals, they’re there to have their own life, we’re just there to give them shelter and food and to take care of them.”

In response to the video’s revelation, Grant and other Lucky Pup volunteers decided to cancel a small event that they had organized to see the movie after its release. For Orsi’s part, she plans to visit different theaters around southern Maine to show protest and distribute information.

“I have about 300 leaflets being sent to me and three or four posters,” Orsi said.

The materials, she said, are designed and supplied by PETA specifically for this movie. Her efforts are part of a nation-wide effort. Additionally, Orsi said she has started a petition on change.org to raise awareness, which she said has spread locally through social media.

In other news, Orsi also recently published her objection to the use of a team of sled dogs at an upcoming city celebration. See letter to the editor, “Animal abuse in Biddeford? Cancel dog sled team at WinterFest,” in the Courier’s Jan. 19 issue. WinterFest, planned for Feb. 3-5, will include dog sled rides provided by Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience, a kennel and chartering business based in the town of Oxford. The service is funded by the WinterFest Committee, according to Heart of Biddeford director Delilah Poupore, who is coordinating the celebration. That committee is funded by local sponsors, Poupore said, and the bill for the day’s dog sledding is $1,300.

“My point of view on it is, these dogs, whether or not they’re trained, we don’t know their feeling toward this type of work,” Orsi told the Courier more recently. “I tie it into horse-drawn carriages, and how many injuries a year happen with that.”

One of Orsi’s main objections to the use of sled dogs is that they can become exhausted by the hard work and suffer physiological damage as a result.

“Dogs are a lot smaller than us,” she said. “They’re not really meant to pull our weight. And I know that they’re structured in a way where they can handle pulling two people on a sled at once, but I don’t think that they should be forced into giving rides all day.”

As a response to the inclusion of the sledding, Orsi said that she will boycott that part of WinterFest.

“The less people that are there, and the less action and response that it gets, maybe the message will be received that we shouldn’t be using animals in that manner at all,” she said.

Alex Therriault owns and operates Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience. He said he was born into dog sledding, his father having run the kennel before him, and he’s been doing it for 21 years. Therriault disagreed with many of Orsi’s objections.

“If the dog doesn’t want to run, we don’t make them,” he said. “Very rarely does a dog not want to run, but it’s obvious when they don’t. They don’t pull.”

Therriault said that an important sign that a dog doesn’t want to run is that they will “neckline.” Necklining refers to one of the two lines attached to sled dogs, the neckline being a secondary line that keeps the dogs in position. When a dog doesn’t want to pull, the neckline will be slack, showing that the dog isn’t contributing to the sled-pulling. Therriault said there are other signs as well.

“They’ll sit down, they’ll lay down, maybe they won’t get excited when they’re about to run,” he said. “All these things are signs that a dog doesn’t want to run. As rare as it is, it does happen.”

Dogs that don’t want to run by temperament are either kept as pets, Therriault said, or if they’re young they might be adopted out to friends.

He said he is familiar with objections from animal rights proponents.

“It’s all referring to, ‘you’re making them run,’” Therriault said. “Every objection people have is to that, because they think that the dogs don’t want to run. What I say in that case is, come to one of these events, come dog sledding with us. It’s obvious, you can see how excited they are. It’s completely obvious that they want to run.”

He also said that his dogs are not pushed to the point of exhaustion.

“That doesn’t happen anymore, on any legitimate basis,” Therriault said. “A hundred years ago, maybe. But we’re smart enough to know when a dog gets tired. The dog doesn’t run any large enough distance to make that happen. We are very careful with our dogs. We make sure that they don’t get exhausted. They’ll get tired, and then by the time they get tired, they stop pulling as hard. We can see that, and that’s when you’ll take them out.

“I believe that WinterFest is going to be for three hours, and I have three teams. That means 18 dogs are running at a time. I have 46 dogs running. Each dog has to do an hour, maybe a tiny bit more, which is absolutely nothing. I have dogs out there that, you could hook them up right now and go six to eight hours, no problem.”

Another objection that Orsi shared was that the dogs should not be running on the streets of Biddeford.

“I know dogs’ paws are not meant to be in salt or sand,” she said. “A rule of thumb is, if our feet hurt, theirs do too.”

Therriault agreed in principle, and said that he would not run dogs on pavement.

“I would never do that to my dogs. That is not fair,” Therriault said. “Pavements will rip their feet up, and I will not run them on that.”

According to Poupore, the sledding will happen on the empty lot at 3 Lincoln St., the former site of Maine Energy Recovery Company. Therriault said he understood the plan to be that the lot would be snowcovered, with a trail groomed by snowmobile.

According to Therriault, his business does events similar to WinterFest four or five times a year, with one as recently as Jan. 21 in Lisbon.

When asked, Therriault agreed that there is some basis for objections that dogsledding involves mistreatment.

“Dog sledding in general, if you look back a hundred years, if we did that nowadays, that would be called animal abuse,” he said. “Nowadays, most dog sledding people are fantastic with their dogs, they treat them well.”

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