I’ve already established that despite sheeple love for the myth of Sled Dogs, Border Collies are not in fact bred like them. In a later post I’ll show how they do face the same grim options when their work is no longer needed however.
One of the more problematic aspects of romanticizing “working dogs” and rural lifestyles is the resulting whitewash of the reality of animals used in industry. When the bottom line is profit and not animal companionship, financial concerns trump emotional attachment to the animals and industry values do not align well with modern pet ownership values.
So is the case with the continuing saga of the Whistler Sled Dog industry. In April 2010 after the peak sled dog season passed and the huge throngs from the Vancouver Olympics went home, Robert Fawcett slaughtered at least 56 of the young and healthy dogs which comprised the pack owned by Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. (a subsidiary of Outdoor Adventures Whistler) after a Veterinarian refused to euthanize healthy animals and his employers demanded the “lay off” as part of Outdoor’s buyout of the previously independent Howling Dog Tours.
Fawcett pled guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, was fined $1,500 CAD and ordered to do 200 hours of community service, and placed on probation for three years. This followed an investigation by the same SPCA which denied him help before the cull, but later hired forensic war grave experts to exhume the bodies, after Fawcett sparked the investigation when he filed for compensation from PTSD following what he described as a horrific killing of 70-100 animals over two days. The SPCA spent several hundred thousand dollars on their prosecution although they admit that they failed to offer assistance to Fawcett on two different occasions when he approached them for help in finding homes for the animals before he killed them. They claimed that the animals could not be re-homed as they would not make good pets.
Sled dog tours are a highly seasonal business as can be seen in the Google Trends chart from the last several years. Interest peaks during the Winter and falls swiftly after the Iditarod finishes in early March. This coincides with the end of Winter and the final peak weekend for tours happening in March every year. The extreme drop in Vancouver area business post-Olympics was also a clearly foreseeable event, so much so that the company that ran the business profitably during the Olympics sold it to Outdoor Adventures Whistler just after the Olympics concluded.
After the massacre came to light a year later, the Outdoor Adventures company claims their business wasn’t impacted but midway through that winter they donated the entire sled dog operation to a newly formed non-profit called The Sled Dog Foundation.
The sled dog operation at the centre of animal massacre allegations, which drew international attention to Whistler almost a year ago, is now in the hands of a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to improving animal welfare.
Sue Eckersley and Kirby Brown have announced (Dec.14) that the sled dog operation formerly owned by Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW) was donated to a newly created organization called “The Sled Dog Foundation.”
The new foundation will own and manage all operations and use the proceeds to improve sled dog welfare.
The foundation hasn’t found success running the sled dog business, and now after just a year and a half they are folding the venture entirely.
It started 18 months ago as a bold move to transform the sled dog industry. The Whistler Sled Dog Co. (WSDC) has announced it is folding up operations and handing its dogs over to the control of Whistler Animals Galore (WAG).
Sue Eckersley of WSDC has confirmed that the members of the foundation board who have been overseeing the operation of WSDC voted last week to dissolve the operation and let WAG find homes for the dogs.
According to Eckersley, money has been set aside to help fund the search for new homes and she noted that some dogs could go to Whistler’s only remaining sled dog kennel, which is managed by Jaime Hargreaves in the Callaghan Valley.
“Our dogs were really aging,” Eckersley said in an interview Monday, July 15. “We could have operated again next year and probably we could have broken even. But, in the long term our dogs have lots of medical needs based on their age.”
Shannon Broderick, the executive director at WAG, said she first heard that shutting down the operation was an option on July 10.
“I did have a bit of a heads up before the decision was made,” said Broderick.
She said WAG now has a huge project ahead as the animal shelter works to find homes for the 86 dogs it now has control over at the WSDC kennel just north of Whistler.
In general, the sled dog industry in Whistler is dying out. Before deciding to close down the operation entirely, another outdoor adventure company that specializes in Snowmobile tours was approached to increase business during the short winters, but that deal went nowhere.
According to Eckersley, there is now just one operational dog sled kennel in the Whistler area, down from three at the end of the winter season. As WSDC seeks out new homes for its aging dogs, Eckersley said she feels there is room for two small kennels in Whistler and there is enough demand to support two with the greatest amount of business taking place over a four-week period around the Christmas holiday period.
Three WSDC employees were impacted, said Eckersley. Two full-time employees were let go along with one part-time worker. She noted that during peak operations the company employed 18 people with most of them laid off at the end of the sledding season.
The WSDC was created when Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW) got out of the sled dog business. WSDC took over the dogs after it was learned the previous manager of the kennel reduced the size of the kennel by at least 50 dogs when business slowed following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The former manager of the kennel entered a guilty plea to a charge of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal after grisly details of the kennel cull were learned.
Ultimately it’s controversial if the sled dogs can be adopted to homes or not. The SPCA expressed the view that they were not appropriate pets likely because they are generally not house broken, kept on chains for most of their lives, and rarely socialized with people and home living situations. Many of the dogs have never been inside a building. But dedicated sled dog rescues claim to have success in rehabilitating and rehoming these dogs. Some claim that this makes the dogs impossible to rehome:
The issue is not the fact that they are genetically programmed to run, but whether the environmental conditions to which they were exposed from early life either well-or ill-prepare them for re-homing with a human family.
In many parts of Canada sled dogs are kept tethered, and this, I believe, is their main welfare concern. Tethering, which requires a small doghouse, a collar and a chain, is a fairly inexpensive housing method compared to a built kennel with partitions for each dog or group of dogs.
Watching 16-week-old puppies habituate to a tether’s lack of freedom, as I did when researching sled-dog kennels in Quebec, is truly unsettling. They fall into a condition psychologists call “learned helplessness” — the futility of their fight for freedom results in a passive depression-type acceptance of their condition.
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after researching tethering in other species and in sled-dog kennels in Alaska, ruled that dogs could not be tethered in commercial establishments. Dogs that were traditionally tethered would have to be housed in kennels.
Sled-dog operators and organizations in Alaska and Yukon have opposed this position based on the evidence of one study (Yeon et al. 2001), which concluded the dog’s welfare is not at risk through tethering. But that study compared tethering with confinement to small individual pens, which allows even less room for behavioural expression. Not surprisingly, the study revealed no significant difference.
Sled-dog kennel owners believe tethering provides a safer environment for the dogs — that they are less likely to climb fences to escape, and less likely to engage in aggressive behaviours than if housed in a group — a position I have found in my own research to be unfounded.
Nevertheless, the Alaskan Sled Dog Association has successfully lobbied the USDA to declare its members non-commercial in order to sideline the tethering ban.
In a 2004 study I conducted in a commercial sled-dog kennel in Quebec, I found that tethering significantly increased aggression with neighbouring dogs, and led to less exploratory behaviours, fewer social behaviours, more injury and, importantly, less sleep than in an untethered group pen of three compatible dogs. Untethered, there was no aggression and the dogs began to self-regulate their behaviours and form hierarchies. Also, there were significantly higher levels of what we consider normal dog behaviours: I noted “play bows,” normal exploratory behaviours, and evidence that when untethered, dogs could finally relax enough to sleep. There was enough evidence to suggest, from this small study, that tethering is detrimental to dog welfare.
So what about the question of re-homing sled dogs who have been almost continually tethered? We know that exposure to a broad range of environments and stimuli during the socialization phase of puppy development (roughly 5-12 weeks), when their brains are developing and before their fear response sets in, increases their acceptance of new people, environments and objects when they mature.
Puppies born in kennels, with little exposure to humans or their living conditions under the age of 12 weeks, are neurologically disadvantaged and will be fearful. In fact, we know that dogs raised with no human contact up to the age of 16 weeks are effectively feral.
Puppies born in sled-dog kennels would also be restricted in their exposure to household environments, and may also be unable to react to new experiences without extreme fear. While nurturing, experienced handlers may be able to gradually desensitize some of these dogs, the reality is that extreme fear will often result in aggression.
Tethering from an early age similarly reduces dogs’ exposure to novelty, making them poor prospects for successful re-homing. It also makes them unable to express normal behaviours. Dogs, like us, are social animals and desire contact with others of their species.
Their inability to reach another dog — an evolutionary necessity, as those on the margins of a pack are potential prey — is not normal.
A dog tethered next to an incompatible dog will constantly be alert and stressed because it can’t escape the situation. The animal’s emotional and physical health will decline.
Tethering also causes behavioural responses. Dogs may perform repetitive behaviours such as incessant pacing, circling, barking, licking or self-mutilation, or learned helplessness.
Ultimately, the practice of continual tethering is the main reason it is virtually impossible to re-home sled dogs in a non-kennel environment.
At least one Sled Dog Rescue claims that these barriers are not impossible to overcome and that ex-working-sled-dogs can be rehomed safely.
Despite the controversy, the foundation is working to find new homes for all of the dogs and many of the 86 now jobless working dogs still need homes.
Broderick said she is working in conjunction with the B.C. SPCA to find homes for the dogs. She said that in a typical year WAG finds homes for about 80 dogs, so she enlisted the help of the provincial organization in the hope that there will be a province-wide response to the effort to find homes for the dogs. Broderick said she expects most of the dogs will be adopted directly out of the kennel but a few may need to spend some time in the WAG shelter before they find new homes.
“I think the company has done a great job this last year of socializing the dogs,” said Broderick.
The biggest challenge with the sled dogs is the fact that they don’t have any house skills.
“Teaching them to walk on a leash and maybe even in some cases housebreaking and chewing on appropriate chew toys, those are going to be our challenges,” Broderick noted.
She estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of the dogs in the kennel are extremely shy.
“We need to get them socialized with people,” she said.
Anyone who wants to adopt one of the dogs is asked to send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org indicating an interest in adopting a sled dog.
You can follow their efforts on Facebook or their webpage to inquire about a sled dog yourself or just read the hopefully happy endings for this set of dogs that survived the massacre and standard practice of culling working dogs when they “retire.”
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