Dogs up for adoption after Whistler Sled Dog Company folds

WAG, SPCA helping to find homes for 86 former sled dogs

Dozens of former sled dogs are up for adoption after the Whistler Sled Dog Company (WSDC) announced last week that it would fold, 19 months after it began operations.

The non-profit took on 187 sled dogs, most of them belonging to Outdoor Adventures Whistler, after the fallout from the discovery of a gruesome cull of more than 50 dogs working for Outdoor Adventures that took place in April 2010.

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The WSDC's Sue Eckersley said the board voted to close up shop because of the challenges associated with running a commercially-viable sled dog operation while still maintaining a high ethical standard.

"We have determined that we're not able to commercially run a dog sled operation providing a level of care that we believe the dogs deserve," she said. "It's really the enrichment factor for the dogs that becomes an issue in the summer months. We were hoping to have enough economic success with the dog sledding to pay the monies needed in order to have a really enriched summer for our dogs. At the end of the day, we were struggling with that."

Eckersley said poor breeding practices and health concerns with some of the older dogs also played a role in the board's decision. She said the company would have had to bring in additional dogs in order to continue operations into the winter.

"As an animal welfare organization, we didn't feel that that was appropriate," she said.

The majority of the 86 dogs under WSDC's care will be turned over to Whistler Animals Galore (WAG), although they will remain at the dog sledding operator's kennel for the time being. The Whistler Sled Dog Company is also permitted to adopt dogs straight from their kennel. WAG has already helped adopt out 90 of the former sled dogs in the past 18 months and will now spearhead efforts to find the animals new homes.

The B.C. SPCA has committed to helping as well, taking 14 dogs to adoption shelters in Burnaby and Vancouver Island on Friday (July 12). The animal welfare group is in ongoing discussions with WAG and the WSDC to find homes for additional dogs as well, said Marcy Moriarty, the chief prevention enforcement officer for B.C. SPCA.

WSDC staff has worked to socialize the dogs for eventual re-homing since they began operations, and animal behavioural experts have been brought in recently to assist as well.

"Like all sled dogs they will need increased socialization, a customization to cultural sounds and smells - even just walking on concrete is something very foreign to them," said the SPCA's general manager of shelter operations Bob Buch. "The dogs we have taken are quite friendly, they just need some adjustment to being in a non-sled dog setting."

While demand for the former sled dogs is expected to be high, Moriarty urged prospective pet owners to be aware of the responsibilities associated with adopting an animal that is not accustomed to a domestic setting.

"People have to be cautious when they're looking to adopt. This is not a novelty pet so people can say 'Oh, I have one of the Whistler sled dogs.' That's a big, big fear. I'm sure that both WAG and us at the SPCA will be hyper-vigilant to match these dogs with the right home environment," she said.

As a result of the dog cull by former kennel manager Robert Fawcett coming to light in January 2011, new provincial laws were passed down regulating the dog sledding industry, some of the strictest in the country. The legislation covers all facets of a sled dog's life and prohibits a healthy dog from being euthanized unless all re-homing options have been exhausted. The new code of practice also calls for commercial sled dog operators to provide complete life cycle care for the animals without having to rely on animal shelters at the end of their sledding careers.

"Outdoor Adventures (Whistler) dumped the dogs, and put Whistler Sled Dog Co. in an unfortunate position. All in all, it's not a great thing that these dogs are having to be funnelled through a non-profit organization. That's something we wanted to avoid, but I think that's the legacy Whistler Sled Dog Co. inherited," Moriarty said. "We'd like to see this avoided in the future if people in the industry would adhere to the sled dog code of practice, starting with the proper socialization and right through to the birth to death plan."

With a year-and-a-half in the industry, Eckersley said she still has some concerns over the practices of other dog sledding companies in the province, and is still unsure "whether dog sledding is ethical or not as a commercial tourism operation." Even still, she's happy with the work that was done by WSDC to assist the dogs and provide them with a quality of life.

"There's some disappointment around not being able to make it work, but (do I have) any regrets of taking it on? No. We've done well by these dogs for the last 19 months and now we're doing the best we can for the dogs that are remaining," she said.

Fawcett pled guilty and was sentenced to three years probation, a $1,500 fine, a 10-year firearm ban and 200 hours of community service in November for causing unnecessary pain and suffering to nine dogs in his care. The sentence sparked outrage nationwide, most notably from B.C.'s SPCA, which led a $250,000 investigation into the incident.

Those interested in adopting a former sled dog are asked to email retiredsleddoginfo@whistlerwag.com.

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