Legacy of Whistler Sled Dog Massacre is New, Controversial Code

In response to a horrific incident from 2010, British Columbia has devised new rules to protect sled dogs, but not everyone thinks they will work.

On April 21 and 23, 2010, using a gun and a knife, a man executed as many as 100 sled dogs in an act that horrified animal rights activists, dogsledders, and the general public. Occurring in Whistler, British Columbia, it has come to be known as the Whistler sled dog massacre.

Robert T. Fawcett, director of Howling Dog Tours Whistler, Ltd., killed roughly a third of his company's dogs when business slumped following the 2010 Winter Olympics. The slaughter was brought on by financial reality -- the company was feeding and caring for far more dogs than it needed -- and Fawcett said at the time that it wasn't his decision, that he was following orders. The dogs were buried in a mass grave.

Months later, haunted by his actions on those two days, Fawcett applied for and received compensation from WorkSafeBC, the Workers' Compensation Board of British Columbia, for post-traumatic stress disorder.

That's when the story got out -- a leaked WorkSafeBC report on the decision contained the story of the slaughter in gruesome detail. Dogs were killed in front of other dogs, dogs that weren't taken down with a clean shot ran off and had to be chased down, dogs were killed "execution style," and through it all, the dogs that were still alive became more and more panicked.

(The report is here, and is not for the faint of heart.)

The SPCA investigated, and a large forensic operation, described in MacLeans, exhumed 56 dog corpses from the grave site. The SPCA has lobbied for criminal charges to be pressed against Fawcett and Joey Houssian, owner of Outdoor Adventures at Whistler, parent company of Howling Dog Tours but to date no such charges have been filed.

The main consequence of the dog massacre has been a revision of British Columbia's laws on animal cruelty. A CBC report published on Tuesday led with the statement that "British Columbia now has the toughest animal-cruelty laws in the country."

But animal advocates aren't so sure the Sled Dog Code of Practice and other regulations (outlined by the province's Ministry of Agriculture) are a good solution.

A February 22 article in the Vancouver Sun reported that two Vancouver animal groups, the Humane Society and Lifeforce, were alarmed that the new code included instructions for the humane killing of dogs. Peter Fricker of the Humane Society said, "It's disturbing that a document that is supposedly about animal welfare shows you how to shoot your dog" and added "We don't really see how this prevents something like Whistler happening again."

An article in the Whistler Question described the concern voiced by the SPCA that the new codes were not enforceable with the available resources. Marcy Moriarty, general manager of cruelty investigations for the B.C. SPCA, said that “If the code is enforced, it would result in improved welfare for sled dogs — but the reality is that the government has made it clear that they will not be providing funding to the SPCA for cruelty investigations this year. ... It’s just physically impossible for 26 constables funded by donors to conduct proactive, onsite visits to all of these operations on top of the animal cruelty investigations that we do each year.”

Moriarty was involved in the investigation of the original massacre, and was also part of the working group that devised the new codes. "The government can now say we have the toughest penalties, we have the toughest legislation and now we have the first regulations in Canada around working animals, sled dogs, and that’s excellent,” she said. “But it’s just a book on a shelf without the ability to actually enforce it.”