Sled dogs rest after returning from a tour run by Outdoor Adventures in the Soo Valley north of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada in 2011.
The government of British Columbia, Canada has published new regulations governing the handling of sled dogs — a move prompted by a grisly 2010 case in which a tourism company near Whistler killed as many as 100 animals that became "surplus" amid slumping business.
The Sled Dog Code of Practice is a step — a small one, according to critics — toward addressing problems in competitive and entertainment dog sledding that is mostly unseen.
"The problem with this whole issue is these (breeding and training) operations are out of the public eye," said Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society. "People see the dogs in public, but they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes."
The sled dog slaughter came to light only when one of the employees of Howling Dog Tours Whistler Ltd. who were charged with killing the dogs by shooting them and slitting their throats applied for compensation from the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia because he said he was suffering trauma from the task. The WorkSafeBC document explaining the decision to approve the compensation was leaked, making incident public in gruesome detail.
Animal rights critics have long criticized major dog sled races — especially the 1,100-mile Iditarod across Alaska, which begins March 3. Mushers are adamant that dogs love the work, that they are bred to do it, and that no one loves the dogs more than they do. But critics say pushing the dogs to run 100 miles a day for two weeks is brutal. One or more dogs die in the race nearly every year, despite the volunteer veterinarians who attend to the animals.
The new British Columbia regulations are primarily focused on the breeding, training, transportation and euthanizing of the animals. They spell out requirements for pens and tethers, exercise, socializing, grooming and nail care. And they say that euthanizing should not be a means of culling or population control.
The standards disappointed some animal advocates, including the Vancouver Humane Society, which had advocated banning sled dog racing.
And some were outraged that the regulations spell out how sled dog owners should euthanize dogs if they cannot race anymore and can't be placed in a new home. A diagram illustrates the proper way to position a gun at a dog’s head to ensure a clean kill.
The Humane Society's Probert said that in any case the regulations and standards “have no teeth” because no resources were allotted for their enforcement.
Nonetheless, the British Columbia regulations move the province ahead of other Canadian jurisdictions, where no specific regulations exist.
Within the United States, Alaska currently has among the weakest legal protections for animals, with only a few lines in state law that require "minimum conditions" for "adequate" nutrition and care.
Just last month, an Alaska court found a sled dog breeder guilty of cruelty to animals after local authorities found 19 dead dogs and 168 more severely malnourished at his operation in Willow. Frank Rich was sentenced to 180 days in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of animal cruelty.
A task force has just started formulating standards to elaborate on the law.
"The challenge is to make them broad enough to encompass all sorts of dog lifestyles," including athletes like sled dogs, said Jay Fuller, veterinarian for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. "We’d like to make clear standards for what is acceptable."
There is no question of barring dog sledding, which is protected by state law, he said.
“Any regulations we adopt have to be consistent with state law, and the law says (the competitions) are OK,” Fuller said.
"What I hope is that there will be a universal standard of care for all dogs," said Maureen O’Nell, executive director of the Alaska Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, who is taking part in the meetings. She said that sled dogs are a particularly sensitive case, and some would like to create special rules for them.
"The mushers are a strong community and I think there has been hesitation to what might somehow be perceived as anti-mushing,” she said.
After the dog slaughter case in British Columbia, which emerged shortly after Whistler hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, the dog sledding business took a hit.
"When the incident occurred … it was a black eye not only for dog sledding but for Whistler," said Craig Beattie, general manager of Canadian Snowmobile, a Whistler company that provides outdoor adventures, including dogsledding tours. In order to reassure customers, he opened up his company's kennels to them and promised them full refunds if they felt there was anything amiss.
He said the standards mandated by the government were already in place for their sled dogs, and he said he hopes they will be enforced elsewhere.
"I think it will be way better for the animals, and for the people," said Beattie. "Obviously, the negativity will decrease toward the dog sledding."
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