As news of the culling of 100 dogs used for sledding continues to spread tourism and municipal leaders have gone into full damage control.
"...To say these allegations reflect a tragic event would be an understatement," said a Tourism Whistler statement sent to media today.
"These allegations are a shock to us all."
In response Tourism Whistler has held discussions with Outdoor Adventures at Whistler Ltd (OAW) and has decided to suspend bookings on its website of OAW's dog sledding tours. Tourism Whistler will be providing refunds to anyone who chose to cancel their dog-sled reservations. There have been no cancellations to date.
Tourism Whistler went on to say that it has represented Outdoor Adventures for over six years and that it is unaware of any past incidents that would create concern for its treatment of animals. The organization emphasized that the investigation now being carried out into the cull is focused on one operator and the decision does not impact the other two dogsled companies in town.
Chris Quinlan, a councillor with the Resort Municipality of Whistler, said, personally, he was disgusted when he first heard about the story.
"I was pretty shocked," he said.
Earlier Monday, Quinlan contacted Canadian Snowmobile Adventures (CSA), which along with OAW and Blackcomb Snowmobile makes up the dogsled market in Whistler, and asked whether he was using dogs from the same kennel. Both operators have completely different kennels from the one used by OAW.
Asked what impact the news could have on the dogsled operators, Quinlan said, "I think what'll happen is the good operators will step up, showcase a good product in the way they operate. That will take care of the dogsledding industry."
News of the dog slaughter broke this morning after WorkSafe B.C. documents provided to CKNW Radio in Vancouver showed that a subcontracted employee of Outdoor Adventures was compensated for post-traumatic stress disorder after shooting 70 dogs on April 21 and 23 of last year. Media reports later had the company admitting that 100 dogs were killed.
The documents also stated that demand for dog sled tours fell after the Olympics and that the shootings were carried out when the company could not find homes for the animals. They were buried in what's referred to as a "mass grave."
Canadian Snowmobile Adventures, which also runs showmobile, showshoe and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tours in the Callaghan Valley, contacted Pique on Monday morning and said it has a high standard of care for animals in dogsled operations.
"All my guys can run free," said Jamie Hargreaves, who runs the tours as a subcontractor for CSA. "Just as an example, at other companies you won't see any dogs off a chain, whereas these guys can run free without a chain. In the summer you'll see me running 40 loose dogs on an ATV at a time, just running with me."
Asked whether such mass killings are common in the dogsled industry, she said her own retired dogs still live with her.
"I've got dogs here that don't like to work," Hargreaves said. "I try to place them in homes. If they don't, then they hang out."
Reactions around the resort have veered from sadness to outright anger, despite the perpetrator not being identified. A Facebook group titled "Boycotting Outdoor Adventures in BC, Whistler" had over 600 members signed up as of 4 p.m. and more were signed up each time the page was refreshed.
Comments demand accountability of the company, particularly its owner, Joey Houssian, who is the son of Intrawest founder Joe Houssian. One member posted his Facebook profile on the site and encouraged others to send him personal messages.
Houssian has not returned calls to the Pique for comment on the story.
Corey Steinberg, a Whistler lawyer who is representing the employee, initially planned to have a news conference in the Summit Lodge at noon.
However, Pique arrived at the lodge only to discover that it had been cancelled. When Pique called the Double Diamond Law Corporation, the office where Steinberg works, the receptionist said they would have no comment on the matter today.
Marcie Moriarty, general manager of cruelty investigations with the SPCA, said the Society has launched an investigation and the RCMP is "assisting as needed." She expressed anger that WorkSafe BC didn't give it info about the dogs earlier but investigators now know where the site of the mass grave is.
"We were just flipped the decision Friday night by CKNW," she said. "To be honest, that is something that certainly angers me. I don't know if WorkSafe BC could have given us the info. Realistically, now the ground's frozen. It hinders our investigation, needless to say, now that it's months later."
Outdoor Adventures has contracted Hoggan and Associates, a Vancouver PR firm, to assist with communications around the incident.
In a statement issued on Monday morning, Outdoor Adventures said it "only recently" learned about "tragic and regrettable events regarding a cull of animals at Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. (Howling Dogs)" that were the subject of the WorkSafe B.C. compensation.
OAW has had a financial interest in Howling Dogs for four years though operational control remained with the employee who is the subject of the WCB case.
It also maintained in its release that it "did not instruct the General Manager" of Howling Dogs to carry out the killings in the manner described in the media.
"OAW was aware of the relocation and euthanization of dogs at Howling Dogs in April 2010 but it was our expectation that it was done in a proper, legal and humane manner," the release read. "We only learned otherwise on Friday, January 28 when we read the WCB ruling for the first time. OAW is now investigating the matter."
Shortly after the shootings, the general manager stopped running the business. He continues to get support from OAW and because the information in the WCB report pertains to his emotional condition it does not feel it's appropriate to release further information about him.
OAW assumed full operational control of Howling Dogs in May 2010. Howling Dogs made big changes to its business after professional consultation and new leadership came on board. That included relocation and delivery of dogs throughout Canada at the company's own cost, which saw about 75 of its most capable dogs shipped across B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
All male dogs in the kennel were also neutered to prevent unwanted pregnancies and manage its population, a program that was implemented in concert with a Whistler veterinarian.
The company also created an "open-pen" kennel where dogs would not be tethered or chained. Thus far 85 per cent of the kennel has been transitioned to its new format with a goal of being transitioned 100 per cent before the summer.
Outdoor Adventures now has a company policy that any dogs that need to be euthanized be sent to a veterinarian. It claims there are no firearms on company property.
A new manager has been hired for Howling Dogs who they say is "working to craft the finest dogsled operation in the world with the highest standards in the industry."
A veterinarian concluded a bi-annual inspection of all dogs and kennel conditions on December 1, 2010, and said he was "pleased at the substantive improvements seen at the facility and have no concern about the dogs' quality of life or for the care they are provided."
The Resort Municipality of Whistler said in a news release that its council and staff are "extremely concerned" by reports of sled dog culling that it said occurred "outside of the Whistler municipal boundaries" in April 2010.
According to a statements on its website Howling Dog Tours of Canmore, Alberta sold its interests in Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. in 2004.
"As of 2004, the owners of Howling Dog Tours Ltd. (Canmore) sold their 5 per cent interest in 'Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc.' to Mr. Robert Fawcett in its entirety. We are shocked and saddened by these events, however, we have not had any interest or control of Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. since 2004. To our knowledge, the company in Whistler, B.C. was operating as 'Whistler Dogsledding.'"
Pick up the Pique Thursday for a full story and check www.piquenewsmagazine.com for updates.