Local voice added to sled dog inquiry

Erika Engel, Staff  Feb 23, 2011 - 10:08 AM


There's a local resident lending her voice and knowledge to the Sled Dog Task Force charged with an inquiry into the killing of 100 sled dogs in Whistler BC last year.

Dorris Heffron, author of City Wolves, spent more than 10 years researching the history of the Canadian sled dog and studying the industry, as it exists today.

The SPCA is investigating reports that 100 sled dogs were shot and died slowly after the Vancouver Olympics ended and business slowed for the dog owner's tour company.

"I am very concerned that justice prevail in the case of sled dogs being 'culled' after the Olympics at Whistler," said Heffron. "I am concerned for the dogs, for the people involved, for the proper practice of dogsledding as a business, for the very bad effect this case has upon the image sled dog care has in Canada, and the sense of shameful aftermath to the Olympics it has created."

Dr. Terry Lake, a veterinarian and member of the Legislative Assembly for BC is chairing the task force.

The group includes Dr. Lake, Craig Daniell, the CEO of the British Columbia SPCA and Barbara Steele, the president of the Union of BC Municipalities.

On Thursday, the Task Force hosted a stakeholder engagement session, which included Dorris Heffron and several others representing the industry, animal welfare and veterinary professionals.

Heffron was selected as a member of the discussion on the sled dog industry along with Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler; Karen Ramstead, president of Mush with PRIDE and the first female to finish the Iditarod dog race; Frank Turner of Muktuk Adventures; Megan Routley, professional dog sled racer; and Marcel Gobin, former sled dog operator at Youth Custody Centre.

"The important assertion made was that this incident was an aberration," said Heffron. "This is about not allowing this to happen so easily. Not allowing it to happen anywhere else. Not allowing it to happen again."

Heffron believes that Canada's sled dogs should be preserved and presented with dignity as Canadian icons.

She proposed a licensing regime for commercial dog sled operations that goes further than a business license does.

She wants a license regime that "has conditions for proper care and treatment of the dogs as well as provisions for their retirement."

Heffron added that businesses such as restaurants and taxis undergo investigations as a condition of their license, and so should commercial sled dog businesses.

She believes there needs to be legislation to uphold standards for keeping sled dogs including such details as how long a tether must be, how long a dog can be tethered and a plan for retiring a dog that can no longer race or pull a sled.

"I think there has to be inspection, certainly of commercial sled dog companies," she said.

Heffron also suggested that more attention and support needs to be given to Veterinary college programs that place students in northern and remote areas in Canada. She said veterinary care is hard to find in the north, and that's a cause of poor conditions for sled dogs.

Dr. Lake agreed with Heffron and said the task force is aware that there are no specific standards for the sled dog industry.

"I think it's important that we make sure this industry is well run and that the animals are cared for, housed and exercised properly," he said. "We're looking at legislation to see what we can do as a lever to improve the certification ... we haven't settled on anything yet."

The final results will be published in a report to the Minister of Agriculture on March 25, then it will be made public.

"I'm hopeful we can come up with some recommendations that can be acted upon and make a real difference," said Dr. Lake. "This is not acceptable to Canadians to have something like this happen."

For more information on the Sled Dog Task Force or to submit a comment, visit www.gov.bc.ca and follow the links on the Ministry of Agriculture page.