To Dog Sled Or Not?
My family and I stayed in beautiful Whistler, Canada over Christmas this year, for a much-needed recharge and reconnect. It was truely magical with the snow covering the majestic trees, heaven-high mountains and the quaint bustling village. I loved the Christmas vibes, the indulgence of incredible (and not always healthy) food and drinks, and just spending quality, no-distraction, time together as a unit. We skied, snow-mobiled, ice-skated, tubed... and when the kids saw the brochures for the dog-sledding they were begging to have a go. My kids LOVE dogs and from the photos it looked, and promised to be, a stunning outdoor experience. Me being wary of any entertainment where animals are involved, means I will ALWAYS spend five minutes checking the background before I agree (or not agree, which I admit is my initial reaction) to supporting something ... all it takes is five minutes. I spoke to the hotel concierge and dog-sled business managers and they held dog-sledding in high regard, claiming the dogs are loved, well cared for and that they love to pull the sleds.
However reading a few articles online flagged red lights for me, especially when I saw the winner of the Whistler Film Festival, SLED DOG, happened to be about cruelty in the sled-dog races and sled-dog tourism industry. (Check out the trailer below.) Award-winning Toronto director Fern Levitt said her passion for sled dogs was piqued in 2010 after taking a dog sled ride in northern Ontario, where she saw hundreds of chained dogs and learned 30 were about to be culled.
"I was absolutely shocked. To me it looked like a concentration camp of dogs," said Levitt.
Apart from this upsetting footage, when I watched the dog-sledding companies clips, it truely seems the dogs do love to pull the sleds. One of my dogs, who may be a little high-energy, slightly crazy, also pulls on her lead when we walk and seems to also get joy from dragging me around Bondi...but I could not ignore that this is only a tiny part of what actually makes up the industry.
- the breeders,
- the place and manner of which they are homed and cared for, and
- what happens to them after they are no longer needed (or able) to pull the sleds
Just like pet stores, or even egg farms, the issue often is not with the owners of the end business. Many pet stores, dog-sledding companies and egg farms alike, have wonderful standards and love and nurture their animals but what of the origin of the animals. Where did these animals come from?
In the case of dog-sled dogs, they come from breeders - or more namely put in this case, puppy-farms. Sled Dog and other undercover investigations, uncover that many of these breeding compounds have really terrible conditions for the dogs - where dogs are kept tied to metal posts, in plastic barrels or wood “houses” and forced to breed over and over.
Ariel view of numerous dog-sled breeding operations
This, I in no part of me am willing to support.
"At the breeding compound at Ontario’s Chocpaw Expeditions, the largest kennel in North America, dogs chained to plastic barrels stretch as far as the eye can see. The dogs live in a six foot circumference of wet mud and puddles. Some are driven mad by the confinement, spinning on their chains until they are stopped short, over and over again."
Then in the actual dog-sledding operations, approximately 150 - 300 dogs are kept at a time. Homing this many dogs means they are often kept tethered on chains, or at best, in pens. Some of them have the space to allow them to run free in large areas during the days when they are not pulling sleds, but this is not regulated and with such large packs, it is easier to manage if they are kept tied up or in their pens - unable to really socialise, which dogs innately need to do.
And what about off-season when there is no snow and no business?? What happens to the hundreds of dogs then? I am not sure, but the account from one of the dog "mushers" made me wary;
“The dogs that do grow up are chained for their entire time as adults. Only seasonally when in race training, when actually racing or during tour operations do they get exercised, and then perhaps once a day or once a week. As soon as they finish work in the sled team they are returned straight back onto the chain, there is no free time to move about freely, run or socialise with other dogs ever.”
In 2010, Whistler was in the worlds spotlight, rocked by the mass slaughter of 100 dog-sled dogs, that were shot, execution style, because of being "surplus" and unwanted for the tourist business. Even though this large scale cull was not the norm in the industry, it showed that there is no regulation around how the dogs are treated and what can happen when animals, dogs specifically in this case, are viewed as commodities - replaceable equipment - rather than beings.
What is even more concerning to me, is that this high-profile slaughter did not change tether or culling rules; instead, B.C. issued guidelines on humane ways to shoot unwanted dogs.
At Colorado’s Krabloonik Kennels, the largest tourist dog-sledding operation in the United States, “excess” dogs were routinely shot in the back of the head and buried in a pit. Sled Watch Dog owner, Cumming claims that in fact, “It’s pretty common for sled-dog operators to kill dogs and not tell anyone. If the dogs are not capable of earning their keep, they’re of no value to either the dog-tour operators or the dog mushers.”
The two Whistler companies I spoke to personally said they re-home their dogs, but I have to admit I am skeptical at how many homes are open to taking in old working dogs on an ongoing basis and if this could work across the whole industry, when I know from personal experience at dog shelters, the high rate of dogs having to be put down from not being able to re-home them.
So my family and I chose to not go dog-sledding at Christmas. And instead we went skiing again - happily, and I now want to make sure others understand what is going on behind the shiny brochures in the dog sledding industry. As beautiful as it might be, is a 1 hour experience worth supporting these dogs suffering for their whole lives?
“It looks like a concentration camp when you come visit it … the dogs, they get starved, basically, for the summer months, for seven to eight months of the year.”
– Former Krabloonik musher