B.C. mulls changes after sled dog kill

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government will consider changes for the dogsledding industry after the horrific slaughter of about 100 dogs near the resort village of Whistler, but the government minister in charge of animal cruelty laws suggests self-regulation is working.

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government will consider changes for the dogsledding industry after the horrific slaughter of about 100 dogs near the resort village of Whistler, but the government minister in charge of animal cruelty laws suggests self-regulation is working.

Allegations surfaced earlier this week that a former tour operator shot about 100 animals over two days last April, burying them in a mass grave. The RCMP and SPCA are now investigating.

The shocking details have put a spotlight on the sled dog industry, which is largely unregulated, and even some tour operators have called for tougher rules.

Ben Stewart, provincial minister of agriculture and lands, said his department will be watching the investigations to determine whether any changes need to be made, but he said he doesn’t want to assume anything.

“I don’t know the outcome of the investigation, and until it’s complete, I wouldn’t want to presuppose that there is more than one instance of this,” Stewart said in an interview.

“If it is one individual that is not going to operate (according to) what regulations or fines that we have in place, it would be difficult to presume what would fix the issue.”

Dogsledding operations are subject to animal cruelty laws, and Stewart noted the B.C. Sled Dog Association sets out its own guidelines, which are voluntary.

Stewart said municipalities are free to implement regulations of their own.

“This is one area that we’ll be looking to work with other communities that have these types of businesses operating,” he said.

“It is a relatively small industry. Local government is obviously often the first people that are aware of these types of things.”

The dogs were under the control of Howling Dog Tours, which cared for and managed the dogs for tour operator Outdoor Adventures. Outdoor Adventures has said it only had a financial stake in Howling Dog until it took complete control of the company in May 2010, and has insisted it had nothing to do with the decision to cull the animals.

The controversy prompted Outdoor Adventures to temporarily suspend its dogsled tours, and the company said it is conducting its own investigation.

The RCMP is also investigating a number of threatening emails and web postings that have followed the story, although they have offered few specifics. The SPCA is leading the criminal investigation with the support of the RCMP, and on Tuesday the agency said it had located the location of the mass grave.

Craig Beattie of Whistler-based Canadian Snowmobile, which also offers dogsled tours, said he would welcome greater oversight by the provincial government or the SPCA.

Beattie said when he set up his company several years ago, there were numerous regulations he had to meet before opening the kennel, including an inspection from a veterinarian and the SPCA.

But he said he’s faced very little oversight since.

“That was the last we’ve heard of it,” said Beattie. “There should be annual inspections of kennels, there should be standards of where the dogs should be housed, the type of vehicle they’re transported in. (Currently), there’s just nobody to inspect it.”

Beattie has taken pains to assure customers his company isn’t connected in any way to the sled-dog cull in Whistler, or to Outdoor Adventures. He said the story has actually led to an increase in bookings, since Outdoor Adventures is no longer staging dogsled tours.

Humane Society International issued a news release Wednesday calling for stronger provincial and federal laws governing the dogsledding industry, focusing on animal care, although the organization didn’t offer specific suggestions.

The Vancouver Humane Society has gone further, calling for the industry to be banned altogether.

The SPCA has the power to conduct inspections where animals are for sale or hire, although spokeswoman Lorie Chortyk said the non-profit agency doesn’t have the resources to do anything more than respond to animal cruelty complaints.

“We have 25 officers for the entire province, so most of our activity has to be on the urgency of complaints that we’re receiving,” said Chortyk.

“We would love to have the kind of resources where we have people that can be inspecting everything from pet stores to these (dogsledding) operations, but we’re a charity.”

The CEO of the B.C. SPCA, Craig Daniell, said the agency has an annual operating budget of about $25 million — much of it from public donations. The agency spends more than $2 million a year investigating upwards of 5,000 animal cruelty cases.

Daniell said the agency has been hit by government funding cuts. An annual provincial grant of $75,000 was cut last year and hasn’t been restored, he said. The money was earmarked for training the special SPCA constables who work on animal cruelty cases.

The SPCA has also decided to stop relying on an annual gaming grant of $250,000 because, said Daniell, the organization was always kept waiting until late in the fiscal year for confirmation it was actually getting the money.

The agriculture minister disagreed the agency is underfunded. Stewart insisted the government has increased its grants for the SPCA, providing more than $4 million in funding for capital projects during the past nine years and also giving the agency free Crown land for its buildings.

“We’ve increased funding to this group, so it’s certainly not something we’ve neglected,” said Stewart. “We’ve been trying very hard to meet what they’ve told us in the past, and I think that we’ve done a good job.”

Stewart also defended the model that sees a charity enforce the province’s animal cruelty laws.

“We’re much better to put it in the hands of people that do this work all the time,” he said.

— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria