Taking responsibility for B.C.'s slaughtered sled dogs

Simon Jackson on Canada's lack of effective animal cruelty laws.

Canada is unquestionably one of the most progressive countries in the world. But when it comes to preventing the abuse of animals our enforcement record, and the law it is based on, verges on the shameful.

The cases of animal cruelty in this country are too numerous to mention. But few offer as stark a reminder of how negligent we've been as what transpired in Whistler, B.C., in April 2010 and which came to light only this week.

By several accounts, a local company that specialized in dog sledding adventures bred too many dogs in the eager anticipation of a tourist boom following the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Sled dogs take a brief rest after climbing a hill during a tour run by Outdoor Adventures Whistler in the Soo Valley north of Whistler, B.C., on Monday Jan. 31, 2011. The RCMP and the B.C. SPCA are investigating the slaughter of about 100 sled dogs in Whistler. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

When the boom never materialized, they killed 100 of their animals, essentially because someone misread the economic climate.

Clearly, the method with which these dogs were killed — culled, as the company preferred to put it — was not to the letter of the law. The animals were shot or had their throats slit and, in the case of one dog, reportedly, buried alive.

The RCMP and the British Columbia SPCA are now looking into the matter, which surfaced with a leaked report to a radio station. (One of the workers who carried out the killing had applied for workers' compensation for mental trauma and the details were apparently set out in his application.)

Regardless of what, if any, charges are filed, however, there is a much bigger issue here.

It is that Canada has created a culture of passive acceptance to cruelty against animals.

Not a great record

I'm not speaking here about hunting, ranching and their related practices, which some people like to debate. Hunters and ranchers will undoubtedly be as sickened by what happened in Whistler as I am.

RCMP are now probing vigilante threats against the operators of a sled dog company that culled 100 of its dogs last spring, according to the latest reports. Several Facebook and other online sites have sprung up to protest against the so-called cull.

Marcie Moriarty, the general manager of cruelty investigatons at the B.C. SPCA spoke with CBC Radio's As It Happens earlier this week on the state of the inquiry.

The fact is, despite a few tweaks to the law and several failed attempts at substantive change, we haven't fundamentally updated our laws on cruelty to animals since 1892, even when we have had ample reason to do so.

Take, for example, the case of a Quebec man in 2004 who was able to grab a bear cub from its mother while powering by on a jet ski.

When the cub put up a fight, the man proceeded to beat it and attempted to drown it before finally running it over with his jet ski.

The incident was reported to the local paper, but despite a public outcry no charges were laid because the perpetrator was deemed to have broken no laws.

Then there was the example of Michael Vick,  the infamous NFL quarterback shamed and jailed for running a dog-fighting ring in the U.S. As most Canadian experts said at the time, he would probably have been given a free pass if he had lived here.

In this country, it is not illegal to train dogs to fight each other. Charges can only be put forward if someone is caught red-handed "assisting" the dogs in an actual fight.

In fact, according to one study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2008, 99.075 per cent of all animal cruelty cases in Canada go unpunished. Hardly a disincentive.

'Domestic property'

Canada's cruelty laws fall considerably short of the mark for several reasons, including jurisdictional issues and the court's lack of ability to seek restitution for the costs associated with rehabilitating animals.

But the biggest failing is the fact that domesticated animals such as dogs, cats and horses are considered domestic property, which owners can pretty much dispose of as they see fit.

Euthanizing a pet is supposed to be done "instantly" and the federal Criminal Code (and most provincial laws) prohibits anyone from "wilfully causing animals to suffer from neglect, pain or injury."

But even when that last condition is proven, judges have their hands tied when doling out a sentence: Animal cruelty is a summary offence that comes with a small fine ($5,000 maximum — and that's total, not per abuse, according to the B.C. ministry of agriculture) and a maximum of six months in jail.

As the Vancouver Sun's Ian Mulgrew aptly put it, "The legal conundrum is that animals are considered 'property,' not sentient beings with rights."

So, technically, there is nothing stopping people from killing their own pets — or perhaps even 100 sled dogs — should one day they become a burden, as long as it's done humanely. 

In the case of the Whistler sled dogs, this could be an issue. According to what we know, these inconvenient dogs were shot over the course of three days. Some had their throats slit.

In one case, according to a leaked report to Vancouver radio station CKNW, a dog had half of its face shot off and had one eye dangling from its face, but it remained alive as the shooter went about killing the other dogs.

Afraid to legislate

I don't even know where to start on the litany of sickening things wrong with this tragedy.

The fact it only came to light when the shooter experienced post-traumatic stress for "carrying out his job" and applied to the Workers' Compensation Board for financial help?

Or that the company never had a retirement strategy for its working dogs and has now admitted carrying out culls like this in the past?

Or that the B.C. SPCA failed to provide options for adoption and seems to deem it acceptable that the company can retain the 150 remaining members of its sled dog pack?

Canada has had its chances to prevent this kind of situation.

Seven times in the last decade or so, new anti-cruelty legislation was put forward but failed to get passed into law.

The only update to the 1892 law came in 2008. Two bills were before Parliament and MPs backed the one that enhanced the penalty for cruelty but didn't address the outstanding issues of domestic property, restitution, abuse prevention, law enforcement or what animals should be protected.

The main reason the bill failed, it was claimed at the time, was fear of creating a slippery slope that would erode hunting and ranching rights. It's a sad excuse.

In the Whistler slaughter, the investigation will be led by a non-profit organization (the B.C. SPCA), albeit with warrant powers, and its recommendation will then be passed along to the Crown.

But don't hold your breath. We may be one of the only nations in the developed world where a cull like this can take place purely to benefit the bottom line.

To add insult to injury, the person who did the killing has been approved for taxpayer-funded compensation for the mental fall-out from his actions.

There is clearly enough blame here to go around: poor industry practices, over-breeding, the lack of economic means to care for unwanted animals, politicians who have repeatedly refused to step up to the plate.

However, at the end of the day, the fact is that we Canadians just haven't seen fit to make animal husbandry a high priority and demand stronger legislation.

Until we become serious about preventing animal cruelty, something like the Whistler slaughter is only going to be repeated.