The slaughter of 100 sled dogs in Canada has re-energized efforts by some animal activists to ban or boycott dog sled rides, a popular activity among tourists in many winter vacation spots, from New England to Minnesota to Alaska.
"I don't think society is willing to accept that animals, particularly dogs, should be killed just because they are surplus or don't suit the purpose they were born for," said Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society, which has called for a provincial ban on tour businesses.
The dogs belonged to Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc., and its parent company Outdoor Adventures Whistler, located in British Columbia. The dogs were killed last April by a company employee. The incident came to light recently when the employee applied for worker's compensation, saying he suffered post-traumatic stress after shooting the dogs and slitting their throats.
Documents from the worker's compensation probe said the company acquired the dogs in anticipation of extra business during the Olympic Games in Vancouver, and that the animals were destroyed after bookings fell. But in a letter to the editor published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, Howling Dog's owner, Joey Houssian, said "some old and sick dogs needed to be put down" and the company thought the worker assigned the task would perform the culling "in a professional and humane manner." The worker has not been named by authorities and no charges have been brought.
Probert and others believe the incident is the tip of an iceberg in the dog sledding industry, but others say it shocking because it is so rare.
Hundreds of North American businesses offer sled rides as part of winter vacation getaways. But there are no dog sled police who inspect, license or regulate them.
Paul and Sue Schurke have owned Wintergreen Dog Sled Lodge in Ely, Minn., for 30 years. "What happened in B.C. is such a shocking anomaly, I've never heard the likes of it. The magnitude of this atrocity is so shocking — all of us, our heads are reeling. I'm not aware of anyone in the recreational mushing industry who makes a habit of culling," Schurke said.
Most reputable sled dog businesses belong to an Alaska-based group called Mush for PRIDE, Schurke said.
Musher Karen Ramstead, who owns North Wapiti Siberian Husky Kennels in Perryvale, Alberta, Canada, has been president of the group for the last three years.
The organization, which stands for Providing Responsible Information on Dogs in their Environment, has about 500 members in several countries, including South Africa, Sweden, Canada and the United States. The Howling Dogs employee who killed the dogs was a member of PRIDE'S board, Ramstead said, and he has been removed.
This isn't the first time the industry has come under attack. Mush with PRIDE was formed in the mid-1990s because of pressure from animal rights groups over the treatment of dogs, said Ramstead, who has finished the Iditarod four times. The group recommends standards for things like food, water, exercise and kennel size.
To call for a ban is "gross overreaction," she said. "I am horrified by what happened in Whistler. That is not acceptable to me as an individual or to the organization. But to paint an entire sport with the sins of one individual is irresponsible as far as I am concerned."
"When dog sledding is done correctly, it's an awesome sport — awesome, awesome, awesome," said Seth Sachson, executive director of the Aspen Animal Shelter and the Aspen Boarding Kennel in Aspen, Colo.
He has eight sled dogs, all rescued from his shelter. "I am not going to kill them when they are done sledding. They are welcome to live with me forever and be my pets," he said, adding that they get along with his chickens, goats and horses and love the children who visit.
When critics list their objections to sledding, they include culling and living conditions — always tethered, always outdoors and with little social interaction.
As a result, finding homes for older dogs can be a challenge.
Sachson believes most sled dogs can become good pets. He has worked with older dogs who just needed time and patience.
"We get them to stop walking around in circles. Some walk in circles because they've lived on a chain their whole life and that's what they know," he said.
They need to be taught how to walk on a leash, climb stairs, walk across linoleum without falling and ride in a car without vomiting. And there is house-training.
Schurke, who keeps 65 dogs, said he has a waiting list of people who want to adopt his dogs when they are retired.
The California-based Animal League Defense Fund has offered Canadian prosecutors money for forensics and expert witnesses, asked whistleblowers to report other culling abuses and urged people to write Iditarod race sponsors asking them to back out, said Lisa Franzetta, ADLF's director of communications.
The 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, the world's most famous sled dog race, starts March 5.
Humane Society International/Canada called for stronger laws for the sled dog industry. HSI's sister group, the Humane Society of the United States, doesn't have an official position on racing for sport or recreation, just that it be humane to animals.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does not oppose racing, but opposes "any and all cruel practices involved in the sport of racing dogs, horses or other animals, whether for speed, endurance or both, on tracks, trails or snow."
"Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Mushers routinely abandon, shoot, bludgeon, or drown dogs when they become ill, don't run fast enough, or are simply unwanted," Michelle Sherrow of Lexington, Ky., wrote on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"The deaths of these dogs serve as a tragic reminder never to patronize dog sled tour operations. With the Iditarod coming up, be sure to tell everyone you know about the cruelty inherent in dog sledding," she said.
Whether the slaughter will result in legal charges is unclear, said Maneesha Deckha, an associate professor of law at the University of Victoria. She said that while killing your pets is not illegal, putting them through unnecessary suffering is. "Anti-cruelty law is very narrow in scope," Deckha said. "It doesn't really protect against animal abuse, it only protects certain animals from certain types of treatment that we, as a culture, find shocking."
Stehan Otto, an attorney in Portland, Ore., and director of legislative affairs for ALDF, agreed, saying the legal question will be whether there was inappropriate pain and suffering.