Inquiry Report and The Appeal of Sled Dogs
A year ago, in the Malamute Review I described how my first malamute, Yukon Sally, drove the writing of my fifth novel, City Wolves. The fact that I was so intrigued by her wolf-like traits is not an unusual reaction to sled dogs. That it led to my researching the history of malamutes, which led to studying wolves, then following Yukon Sally around the Yukon, researching the Klondike gold rush and eventually investigating the history of women in veterinary medicine is…well…over the top.
As a novel, City Wolves led me on the usual (if a book does well) path of book touring, readings and literary festivals. But as a novel about the origins of sled dogs in the Arctic, it led me to serve on the BC Government Task Force Sled Dog Industry Inquiry set up last February after the news release that from 40 to 100 sled dogs had been shot and knife slashed to death at Whistler after the 2010 Olympics. An RCMP criminal investigation was also immediately launched.
The news spread internationally with the speed of social media, sparking protests in many North American, European and Scandinavian cities. Even in Rome, about 500 people gathered in a central square with their dogs, expressing outrage at the ‘sled dog massacre’. Not to diminish the importance of responding to any act of cruelty to animals, it’s clear that this mass killing of sled dogs touched unusually deep in the heart of people everywhere.
As I reported in the May-June Malamute Review, the Sled Dog Inquiry Report recommended increased penalties of up to $75,000 and two year imprisonment for the most serious crimes of cruelty to animals. The profound change for the sled dog industry is the recommendation of establishing clear and regulated standards of sled dog care, including food, shelter, exercise, veterinary care and provision of retirement for sled dogs, with annual inspections to ensure the standards are met. Also that a sled dog association be established involving set standards of care and regular inspections by veterinarians or SPCA constables.
The premier of B.C. declared that all the Report’s recommendations be implemented. As of October 2011, they actually have been! This is astonishingly fast and efficient government work. Also, given the independent thinking of sled dog mushers and breeders, it is amazing that a sled dog association agreeing upon standards of care and regulation could be established so quickly. The hitch (or perhaps explanation) is that the annual inspections apply only to dog sledding companies operating on Crown Land. Most commercial dog sledding in B.C. does take place on Crown Land.
The criminal case against those responsible for the sled dog killings is a much slower process. The evidence gathered has to be thorough, the case must stand up to all cross questioning. This case has inspired such widespread outrage that the RCMP and SPCA were able to gather an international team of top forensic experts, experts experienced in investigating human murder scenes, unearthing mass graves and genocidal killing fields in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq. Many of these international forensic professionals worked for free or drastically reduced fees.
In May, when the ground at Whistler was thawing, they found 56 sled dog corpses apparent in the mass grave. The bodies were excavated by the forensic scientists, examined by veterinarians and guarded by SPCA constables. The professionally assembled evidence was ‘brought to Crown’ in early autumn.
‘Crown’ has not yet revealed what charges are to be laid, when or if the case will be brought to trial. Willful cruelty has to be proven. Bob Fawcett has confessed to doing the killings but claims he was ‘forced’ by his employers Howling Dog Tours.
Having a daughter who is a defense lawyer, I’m mindful of not prejudicing the case.
Let me just say, in my opinion, parties found guilty in this case will not get off lightly.
The eyes of Canada and the world are upon this case.
Why does it command such deep and widespread outage? Because of the profound appeal of sled dogs. What is their appeal?
I think it begins, as it did for me, in fascination with the wolf traits of sled dogs. It was in 1994 that we bought Yukon Sally. Discovering her similarity to wolves also made me see her differences. She had the size and basic appearance of a wolf but she was a dog, a well bred Alaskan Malamute. She was part of the very long history of dogs who still look like wolves but were trained in teams to pull heavy laden sleds, helping people to move their goods and discover new territories. They guided human beings and saved their lives, sometimes made to sacrifice their own lives in the process. That is what is known about sled dogs world wide.
Because they retain the appearance of wolves they remind people of the original dogs. No matter what kind of dog a person may have, be it a lap dog or a St Bernard, when they see a carefully bred sled dog, they will consciously or subconsciously marvel…that’s what my dog comes from…a wolf.
I saw this first hand at two dog events this autumn. The first was at the Halifax CKC All Breeds Dog Show and Malamute Specialty. I was there as guest speaker at the AMCC Banquet. (That was one of the most unusual and great honours I have been given in my long career as a novelist.) During the show I sold copies of City Wolves at a booth, donating all proceeds to the Halifax Kennel Club. At first I feared few would buy it, only people directly interested in the origins of the Alaskan Malamute, since the ancient story at the heart of it is particularly about sled dogs that became known as malamutes.
In fact, spectators, breeders of various kinds of dogs, even judges, saw the book, with its striking cover of a wolf or malamute that looks uncannily like Yukon Sally, read what it is about and bought it. My entire stock sold out such that I was able to donate $600 to the HKC and they in turn donated the money towards bullet proof vests for Halifax police dogs. All sled dog breeders can smile in satisfaction at that because it was the appeal of malamutes as our indigenous and original dogs at the show that really sold the book.
In November, Dogs In Canada, invited me to sell City Wolves at their booth at Winter Woofstock in Toronto. This is an event for dog lovers to parade and buy things for their dogs. There are entertaining dog contests that have nothing to do with breed. Though interestingly, a very large malamute won ‘favourite dog’.
An astounding variety of characters attend Woofstock. Not the usual venue for a novel! But I sold enough to be able to donate all the proceeds, $500, to the CKC Foundation which funds research into canine diseases and other important causes. One of the buyers was a young Asian woman with a dog small enough to fit in her shoulder bag. She said she admired sled dogs most of all but couldn’t keep one.
Hats off to all you who do keep these dogs of the most profound appeal.
Author of City Wolves (available at bookstores, on line or as an e-book)