The slaughter of dozens of sled dogs in British Columbia last year, which has sparked fierce public outrage that has boiled over into death threats, wasn't a business decision motivated by a post-Olympic drop in sales, says the owner of a company linked to the cull.
Joey Houssian, of Outdoor Adventures, says the man who was caring for the dogs at the time — an experienced dog-sled operator with a "world-class" reputation — told him a number of animals needed to be put down because they were aging and sick.
Houssian said the suggestion that he or his company pressured a worker to kill the dogs is "absolutely false."
'Shocked, horrified — it's very difficult to put words into what I read.' —Joey Houssian, owner of Outdoor Adventures
"It's not that our business slumped post-Olympics; in fact it's just the opposite. Business has steadily improved," Houssian told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday.
"We knew that there were sick dogs, old dogs, dogs where quality of life decisions were being made to put those dogs down. I've been asked, 'How do you know?' We're trusting professionals who've run these dogs, who've raised these dogs, who've worked with these dogs for their whole life."
When the size of the pack needs to be reduced for business reasons, said Houssian, his company's policy is that healthy dogs are adopted out. He said his company has found homes for about 75 dogs since last spring.
Compensation claim details prompted outrage
Outdoor Adventures has been under intense scrutiny for the past week after allegations surfaced that dozens of dogs were slaughtered and dumped in a mass grave near Whistler last spring. The incident prompted protests in Whistler and Vancouver and the RCMP are investigating what they describe as serious, graphic death threats.
Leaked workers' compensation documents show a worker claiming he slaughtered between 70 and 100 dogs was suffering post-traumatic stress as a result. The documents detailed a gruesome scene in which dogs were shot or had their throats slit over two days in April 2010, and said the worker faced pressure from his employer to cull the pack.
The dogs were owned and cared for by Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. At the time of the cull, Outdoor Adventures had an ownership stake in the company but didn't control its day-to-day operations, said Houssian. Outdoor Adventures took over full control last May, a month after the slaughter.
Houssian said he first learned of the allegations a little more than a week ago when a reporter sent him the WorkSafe BC documents.
He said his company didn't participate in the workers' compensation board process or concede that any of the details in the documents were true.
What he read in those documents came as a complete surprise, said Houssian.
He said Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. general manager Robert Fawcett told him in mid-April of 2010 that approximately 50 dogs would be euthanized for health reasons.
He said he trusted Fawcett's expertise and professionalism and had no reason to assume anything untoward had occurred.
"Shocked, horrified — it's very difficult to put words into what I read," said Houssian. "And then sadness, and then disbelief, that it could not have happened. That's what I felt, that's what I still feel today."
Still, Houssian cautioned that neither he nor the public really know what happened, not even whether the number of dogs killed was 50 or 100. And they won't, he said, until the police, the provincial government and his company complete their investigations.
Operations suspended indefinitely
"We hope what we've read — and this is what the investigations are looking at — is not true," he said, adding that whatever those investigations conclude, he takes responsibility.
"I take moral responsibility for what happens in my company, I really want people to know that. We're not trying to play a smoke-and-mirror game here. I take responsibility."
In the meantime, Howling Dog's operations have been suspended "indefinitely" until the investigations are finished, and the company isn't currently offering dogsledding tours.
"I am going to first and foremost participate in the investigations and try to understand the truth," said Houssian.
"It's given great pause to consider our involvement moving forward in this business. It's one of the most popular adventures we offer, people just absolutely love it. But I need to understand the details of this investigation until we make comment about what's next."
The B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is leading an animal cruelty investigation into the slaughter with the help of the RCMP. Houssian said he has been contacted by and spoken with both agencies.
The province has also formed a government-led task force to examine what happened and make recommendations to prevent future incidents. The task force is expected to hold its first meeting on Tuesday, and report back next month.