The local dog sledding industry has shown its continued resiliency in the face of increased scrutiny, and at times, vehement opposition, following the tragic dog cull incident that first came to light almost two years ago.
The incident is a familiar one for Whistlerites, who were once again reminded of the tragic cull of 56 sled dogs last Thursday (Nov. 22) when a Vancouver judge sentenced Robert Fawcett, the former manager of a local sled operation, to three years probation, a $1,500 fine, a 10-year firearm ban and 200 hours of community service for causing unnecessary pain and suffering to nine dogs in his care.
The decision sparked outrage among critics nationwide, most notably the B.C. branch of the SPCA who led the $250,000 investigation into the incident, a sentiment echoed by Sue Eckersley, who was instrumental in taking over the sled dog operation from Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW), the company that Fawcett worked for at the time.
“Disappointed doesn’t really cover how I feel about the decision. In my mind, it should be at least somewhat reflective of how society feels about the situation and I don’t think in any way, shape or form that it’s reflective,” she said.
Eckersley helped found the non-profit The Sled Dog Foundation that now runs the Whistler Sled Dog Co., which received dozens of sled dogs and all the necessary materials from OAW owner Joey Houssian in the wake of the incident, and began booking tours in January 2012.
Since then, the company has seen a wave of support from the community, enjoying healthy numbers for an emerging company, despite the often negative light cast on dog sled operators since the cull.
“We got a very late start and we had virtually no marketing or advanced bookings for last year’s season, and we did extremely well because I think people feel well about going with a group that is mandated around the welfare of dogs,” said Eckersley.
Whistler Sled Dog Co.’s general manager, Will Jackson, said last year’s numbers were down compared to industry norms before the incident, but that advanced bookings for this year were “starting to get back to normal.”
Other dog sledding operators in the community experienced a similar dip in business after the incident came to light in January 2011, but have managed to bounce back during last year’s winter season.
“People were just afraid to book that season. After the fact we felt it, but the next year things went back up,” said Shaun Wilson, owner of Blackcomb Dog Sleds, who reported a 20-per-cent increase in sales last year compared to the previous winter.
Jaime Hargreaves of Canadian Dog Sled Adventures said the incident “didn’t affect our numbers greatly,” although she expressed hope that public outcry over last week’s court sentence doesn’t translate to a drop in business for the dog sledding industry.
“It will probably affect business now because (Fawcett) didn’t really get a punishment, so people are going to be looking to find someone to blame for that, and that’s not every other dog sledding company, that’s Bob Fawcett,” she said. “It would be a shame for the dog sledding industry to take a bad rap for what this one person did, and these dogs really have something to offer and teach the world, I really believe that.”
If there is a silver lining to be found following such a tragic incident, it’s the new provincial laws that have been passed down regulating the industry, some of the strictest in the country.
The new legislation covers every facet of a sled dog’s life, from ensuring adequate health care and breeding practices, to regular exercise and socialization. It also prohibits a healthy dog from being euthanized unless all re-homing options have been exhausted.
“I’m definitely happy with the way things are changing,” said Jackson. “There’s definitely been improvements that I’ve heard of with all three operators (in Whistler) so everyone’s taking a step in the right direction and improving their quality of care for their dogs.”
The Whistler Sled Dog Co. already goes above and beyond provincial standards when it comes to welfare of its 108 dogs, said Jackson, eschewing the use of tethers for its dogs and providing two to three hours of free-running every day. It has also instituted a retirement plan for the dogs so they can eventually be adopted after their sledding careers are over. The company adopted out 60 dogs over the summer with the help of Whistler Animals Galore.
The highly-publicized dog cull has also had an unexpected effect on the local industry, according to Wilson, one that he hopes continues will into the future.
“I think it brought everybody together. All the operators work together now, they all communicate and it’s brought people together to make sure they’re helping each other out,” he said. “It takes the competitiveness out of it a little bit. People don’t want to see the next guy have any issues because they don’t want to bring the whole industry down, so everyone’s helping each other out.”
Whistler’s dog sledding operators are accepting advanced bookings for the winter season now, with hopes to begin sledding excursions in the coming weeks.