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Joey Houssian 'horrified' by post-Olympic dog cull

RCMP and BC SPCA continue to investigate killing of 100 sled dogs

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Outdoor Adventures Whistler owner Joey Houssian said he was horrified when he learned about the execution-style death of 100 sled dogs used by his company.

"Like everyone we were shocked and horrified when we learned of the details in the WCB document last week," said 29-year-old Houssian by email Wednesday.

"Myself and members of our company are part of the very fabric of this community and we know that (we) will get through this difficult time. We would ask that everyone be patient as the details of this incident and investigation emerge."

Houssian said it was his understanding that the dogs, which were to be euthanized, were either sick, old or ineligible for adoption. And he said he believed it would be done humanely.

"We also knew that we had found homes for many other healthy dogs throughout Canada. Specifically BC, Alberta and Ontario," said Houssian.

"I did not know anything about the manner in which the dogs were euthanized until I read it in the WCB report a few days ago. Apart from what the WCB was told by the claimant we understand the number of dogs euthanized was substantially less than 100 and again our understanding was that any euthanizations would be conducted in a humane way."

Houssian declined to be interviewed directly.

The son of Joe Houssian, founder of Intrawest, is caught in a maelstrom of information about the cull, which is believed to be the largest in Canada.

The story broke Monday when media outlets reported that the general manager and a former owner of Howling Dog Tours, a subcontractor to OAW, shot scores of sled dogs to death or slit their throats. The killing did not go smoothly as the dogs panicked. Many had to be shot more than once and some were put in a mass grave while still alive.

The "massacre," as the SPCA called it, was described in WorkSafeBC documents as part of a claim to the Workers Compensation Board for compensation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the 38-year-old man. He is not currently working due to work-related injuries.

The cull, according to the documents, was due to a post-Olympic slow down in business. At the time of the cull, Howling Dog Tours had over 350 dogs.

Pique has made several attempts to contact the former general manager and his lawyer. In a comment on a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder forum he claimed that he was driven to shoot the dogs due to pressure from OAW to cut costs.

Late Wednesday night he sent out a joint statement with Houssian. (Please see related web story)

OAW owns Howling Dog Tours, but, said Houssian, operational control was left with the general manager. In April 2010, the month in which the killings occurred, Howling Dog Tours had over 200 dogs.

The Vancouver Sun has reported that the general manger contacted the SPCA twice asking for help and reporting poor conditions for the dogs following the cull. A scheduled SPCA inspection in the fall never took place. The Sun also reported that the SPCA concluded that many of the remaining dogs would not be suitable for adoption as pets.

The BC SPCA is leading the investigation of the dog culling. Representatives from that organization visited OAW's dog compound alongside the RCMP this week and were satisfied that the remaining 125 dogs are in good condition.

"The dogs appeared to be in good condition," said RCMP Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair.

"I'm not a dog expert, but they looked in good condition, they were not emaciated... they looked like healthy, athletic dogs."

The RCMP and the BC SPCA know the location of the mass gravesite but due to winter weather conditions any exhumation may have to wait until thaw.

It is legal for animals to be killed by their owners but it must be done in a humane manner. Currently under the Cruelty to Animals Act, courts can impose a lifetime ban on owning or possessing animals up to six months in jails and a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offence. But these penalties are uncommon.

The story has sent waves of anger and disbelief throughout the community and beyond. OAW staff and others involved have been threatened.

"We've seen some threats made to individuals and entities, and we're following up on that," said LeClair.

"It's considered a criminal offence under the criminal code, and we'll investigate each one to determine their validity. It's serious, but we're not sure how valid many of these threats are."

The story has gone global and was picked up by aggregator sites like Reddit.com where names, phone numbers and email addresses were posted.

LeClair said it is illegal to make threats, and any valid threats could result in charges under the Criminal Code.

In press releases this week OAW, which took full operational control of Howling Dogs in May 2010, maintained that it "did not instruct the General Manager" of Howling Dogs to carry out the killings in the manner described in the media.

Since May the kennel has undergone significant changes, state the releases. 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 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."

There has also been a lot of media interest from around the world. LeClair estimated that he had conducted over 30 media interviews, including half a dozen radio interviews and half a dozen television interviews. In many cases they have referred media to the SPCA.

A Facebook group titled "Boycott Outdoor Adventures in BC, Whistler" went from 600 members on Monday to over 35,000 on Wednesday afternoon. Members posting on the group's wall are imploring people to boycott the Whistler resort until it stops supporting dog sled operations. Others demand that Houssian go to prison for allegedly ordering the killings.

Protests over the way the culling was done are being planned via social media, such as Twitter, for both the Lower Mainland and Whistler this weekend.

OAW has suspended its dog sledding operations but staff will be kept on to care for the animals. It has launched its own investigation.

Both Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb have removed Outdoor Adventures from their booking websites.

Said TW president Barratt Fisher: "Tourism Whistler and its members are shocked and saddened by the details portrayed in the reported claims.

"Whistler is a caring community profoundly affected by the current situation. Many businesses, including Tourism Whistler actively support and promote dog-friendly programs. The entire community is shaken, and we are intent on receiving verification of the facts so that if there is validity to these claims, those responsible will be held accountable.

"As of Monday, Tourism Whistler suspended the sale of Outdoor Adventures at Whistler's dogsledding activities via whistler.com and the Visitor Centre. After further review with representatives from Outdoor Adventures, Tourism Whistler has decided to extend that suspension to all products offered by Outdoor Adventures Whistler."

Calls have also been made to regulate the dog sledding industry. (see related story p. 16)

"In the weeks that follow, the BC SPCA will also be conducting a thorough review of the apparent lack of regulation in the sled dog industry and will forward its recommendations to the provincial government in due course," said BC SPCA's chief executive officer Craig Daniell , in a statement.

"I have been assured by the Minister of Agriculture, Ben Stewart, that the provincial government will consider any recommendations made by the BC SPCA."

Paula Del Bosco, executive director of WAG said she was unaware that the sled dogs needed re-housing.

"Had we know that these animals were in need of re-homing, I am certain that between ourselves, the Whistler community, SPCA and the other rescues we could have found homes for many of them," she said. "WAG has worked with dog sled companies, including Whistler Outdoor Adventures, in re-homing their dogs."

For Grant Lamont, Whistler's acting mayor, the incident is disgusting and shocking. It brings back decade-old memories of Helmut Banka, a recluse who was found raising dogs in a kennel at the base of Wedge Mountain.

"We were mountain bike riding and we came across this huge dog enclosure with this huge wolf-husky cross guarding it," said Lamont. "There were dog skeletons everywhere from neglect."

Lamont contacted bylaw services at the Resort Municipality of Whistler. In 1995, with a representative from the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks in tow, municipal employees lugged five gallons of diesel to the property on the backs of snowmobiles. They released the dogs from the kennels, doused the property in gas and lit it up.

"It just goes to show that there's still a world full of boneheads out there who don't give a damn about animals and just the money," Lamont said. "We've seen how successful (we've been) in the past year and a half, how we dealt with the animals at Mount Currie, how with coordination with the SPCA and along with WAG and the Lil'wat we were able to find homes and relocate a lot of the animals.

"I really struggle to see whether the due diligence was done, I think that will come out in the investigation."

With the incident gone viral, dog sled operations in Whistler have gone into full damage control mode. Canadian Snowmobile Adventures, which operates snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and dogsled tours in the Callaghan Valley, contacted Pique on Monday morning saying it works very hard to take care of its dogs.

The company subcontracts dogsled tours through a company called Trapper's Run, which has a pack of about 50 dogs and runs a kennel facility in the Callaghan. Jamie Hargreaves runs the kennel, which is described as "doggie heaven."

"All my guys can run free," she said. "Just as an example, at other companies you won't see any 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. It just shows they're happy.

"All these dogs are here because they want to be here."

 

With files from Clare Ogilvie and Andrew Mitchell