Speak out for sled dogs

Sign the pledge not to take part in sled dog tours

Sled dogs are tethered for long periods and it is still legal to shoot surplus dogs

Speak out for sled dogs

Who can forget it? The 2010 killing of 56 sled dogs in Whistler shocked B.C. and made headlines around the world. The public outcry prompted government intervention but has life really changed for sled dogs?

Many questioned whether justice was served when the sled dog tour company employee who killed the dogs was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $1,500 fine, 200 hours of community service, and a ten year firearms ban. It was alleged he had been instructed by the company to “cull” the dogs due to a downturn in business following the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Nevertheless, there was hope that public outrage would lead to positive change. The “Whistler sled dog massacre,” as it came to be known, shone a light on the sled dog tour industry and its treatment of the dogs. The provincial government responded with a code of practice and standards of care for the industry. But the effectiveness of these actions has long been questioned.

In a sad irony, it is still legal for tour companies in B.C. to shoot surplus sled dogs, provided the operator has “made reasonable efforts to rehome the sled dog, but those efforts have been unsuccessful” and the operator follows certain guidelines (as illustrated below).

A major problem with the provincial government’s regulation of care standards for sled dogs is lack of enforcement. This became clear when the regulation was introduced and no government funding was allocated to the BC SPCA to enforce the regulations. Tour operations are not inspected and action can only be taken if a complaint is made to the BC SPCA. In short, no one is watching to ensure regulations are followed.

Although the sled dog standards of care were a step forward, they did not ban tethering or chaining of dogs, which VHS and many animal advocates had called for. The standards only require that: “An operator must ensure that each sled dog is released from its containment area at least once in each 24-hour period, for the purposes of socialization and exercise.” This means a dog could be tethered for 23 out of 24 hours with violating the regulations.

Tethering is a contentious subject, with sled dog tour industry claiming it is humane while many animal advocates call for it to be banned. The 2016 documentary Sled Dogs, which revealed how tethering is the norm in the industry, quoted animal behaviour and animal welfare scientist Dr. Rebecca Ledger: “When they’re tethered they may live in community with other dogs, but that’s not a community – it’s a prison.”

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Canadian Kennel Operations states that “Tethering of dogs (i.e., chains or ropes used to tie the dog to an immoveable object such as a stake or building) is not allowable as a method of confining a dog to a primary enclosure, nor as the only means of containment.”  If true for a dog kennel, why not for a sled dog kennel?

Opinion Editorial

Treatment of sled dogs is morally indefensible

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The welfare of sled dogs came to public attention in 2010 when Robert Fawcett, an employee of Howling Dogs Tours in Whistler, B.C. filed a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. He had allegedly been ordered by his employer to kill surplus sled dogs after a downturn in business following the 2010 Olympics. He shot, stabbed and bludgeoned 56 dogs to death.

In the same year, filmmaker Fern Levitt and her husband went dog sledding in Northern Ontario. In her words: “After an exhilarating ride, I went back to see where the sled dogs lived. What I saw was unexpected and distressing — hundreds of dogs, all attached to chains several feet long, unable to move beyond their very short restraints. It was an image that I will never forget.” One of the employees told her that 30 of the dogs would be ‘culled’ if homes couldn’t be found for them.

The result was Levitt’s film Sled Dogs, which was released at the Whistler Film Festival in 2016. Every winter, Canadian SPCAs and humane societies across the country warn people to keep their animals indoors.

The Nova Scotia SPCA describes what can happen to a dog left outside as “an excruciating death.” Yet all across Canada and the US there are thousands of sled dogs chained to stakes, often 24 hours a day, with only a wooden hut or plastic igloo for a shelter. Sled dog operators say these dogs are different from companion dogs– that they’re bred for these conditions. But science does not support their claims.

In Sled Dogs, Dr. Paula Kislak, a veterinarian with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association states: “(Sled dogs) have the same basic needs and requirements and desires (as pet dogs), and people who claim otherwise don’t have any scientific basis to claim that.”

In fact, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s code of practice for Canadian kennel operations states: “Tethering of dogs (i.e., chains or ropes used to tie the animal to an immovable object such as a stake or building) as a primary method of confinement is not acceptable.”

The code also states: “All housing should allow for enrichment strategies. Dogs are pack animals and require social interaction with their own species and with people. They do not do well in isolation.”

Dr. Kislak cites the extremes of weather as sometimes unendurable — both the high temperatures in summer and the sub-zero cold in winter. “The animals succumb to frostbite, they succumb to hypothermia, they succumb to stroke.” In summer, there’s no escape from biting insects and flies.

Perhaps even more morally indefensible is the use of sled dogs in the gruelling eight to fifteen-day, 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska (due to start on March 3) and the similar Yukon Quest race. The dogs are exposed to a high risk of injury or death, as documented in Levitt’s film. They’re expected to pull a sled weighing up to 250 pounds through harsh winter conditions, including blizzards, whiteouts, gale-force winds and temperatures that can reach -73C with the wind chill.

Levitt’s film shows heart-rending scenes of dogs suffering from vomiting, extreme exhaustion, dehydration, bloody diarrhea and bleeding feet at checkpoints during the Iditarod. Dogs can’t be replaced, so mushers may be reluctant to remove ailing animals. In one disturbing scene, a severely compromised dog was forced to go on, in spite of advice from a veterinarian who was obviously trying to get the musher to remove the dog voluntarily, pointing out that the dog’s pulse was abnormally and dangerously high.

In fact, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian admitted that about a third of the dogs fail to finish. In 2017, despite all precautions and the sled dog controversy, six dogs died — and that doesn’t take into consideration those who may have died before the race in training, or after the race as a result of the strain on their bodies.

As a result of the Howling Dogs “massacre” in Whistler, B.C.  there were increased penalties in the Provincial Cruelty to Animals Act and basic standards were created for sled dog care.

Shamefully however, both 24-hour tethering and shooting dogs remain legal. The rest of Canada has no standards at all. Sadly, any time animals are used as commodities, their welfare is in danger of being compromised, even when the animal is man’s best friend.

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Stop sled dogs dying

Sled dog races push dogs to their limits.

Sled dogs are dying in cruel, long-distance races.  You can help stop this.

Five dogs have died so far in this year’s Iditarod race in Alaska. One died in the Yukon Quest in February.

The deaths have prompted an impassioned plea from P.J. Johnson, the Yukon Poet Laureate and life-long Yukoner, to end these races.

To sign a petition against the Iditarod and contact race sponsors click here.

Another petition has been launched by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

VHS is supporting a new documentary called Sled Dogs, which exposes the cruelty of sled dog races and tours.  It will be available on the CBC Documentary Channel later this year.

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New film exposes sled dog cruelty



You can help by drawing attention to this important documentary

A new documentary is exposing serious animal welfare problems in the sled dog industry in North America.  The film, Sled Dogs, is being screened at this year’s Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia in December.

VHS, which was interviewed for the film, has always been opposed to sled dog racing and touring.  After the infamous 2010 massacre of surplus sled dogs in Whistler, we called for a ban on the industry but the provincial government chose instead to introduce standards for the treatment of sled dogs (which we believe are inadequate and ineffective).

In a press release, the film’s director, Fern Levitt, says: “This film comes at a critical moment when the public is waking up to the treatment of animals and demanding change. The audience will be outraged when they discover the legal abuse of ‘man’s best friend’ under the guise of sport and entertainment. This is a timely documentary and a definitive call for action.” 

Take action 

Please view the film’s trailer here and comment. You can express opposition to the tethering of sled dogs and “culling” by gunshot. (You can view VHS’s position on the sled dog industry here.)

If you are able to attend the Whistler Film Festival we encourage you to see this film. Tickets will be available through the festival’s website.

Please share this information and let other people know about this important film.

Please donate to VHS to support our work on important issues like this.