Finally, a family reunion that everyone actually wants to attend.
On Saturday, April 26, an outdoor tennis court at the Meadow Park Sports Centre was host to Whistler's first-ever sled dog reunion, bringing together 14 dogs and their respective owners from across B.C. four years after a tragic cull of the working dogs that gained international attention.
The event was organized by Richmond resident Ruth Deweerdt, proud owner of former sled dog, Wasp, a Eurohound and Greyhound mix that was the last Whistler sled dog adopted out of the Burnaby SPCA.
"All these dogs were raised together and were all retired sled dogs, so I thought it would be nice if they all got together and saw their old kennel mates," she said.
And, like any family reunion, old friendships were rekindled and timeworn rivalries reignited.
"You can see them running around here and just how much they love it," said Whistler realtor and owner of two sled dogs, Peter Lalor. "They love to see their old friends, their old rivals and they love to bark at each other... so it's just incidental that the humans are involved."
But of course no family reunion would be complete without a little drama thrown into the mix.
The day before the reunion Deeweerdt brought Wasp and fellow sled dog Weasley to Lost Lake for a walk, only to have the former kennel mates bolt into the woods and out of their owners' sights. The tight-knit sled dog community sprung to action: Posters were made, sled dog owners from as far away as Victoria offered to help, and Mountain FM, Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) and the district pound were put on alert. Deeweerdt even called the dogs' former musher in Australia for some advice on where to look for the missing mutts, who told her that Weasley and Wasp used to race each other any time they were loose. Eventually, a tip came in from someone who had spotted the pooches at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Course, and Wasp and Weasley were found together nearly four hours after they first went missing.
"We didn't realize they were old mates, that they used to have fun like this together before," Deweerdt said. "Maybe if we had known, we wouldn't have let them go out together."
But the canine contingent attending Saturday's reunion wasn't the only group reinforcing old ties. The community of former sled dog owners, who met up for the first time last year in Burnaby, often share stories and advice in two highly active Facebook groups, and share a bond that most pet owners don't, explained Lalor.
"It's really interesting because I think dog owners generally don't have a way to come together, but we have this commonality," he said. "It's just amazing that people will still get together, even though it's more for the dogs' benefit than for us."
The resort has clearly played a huge role in enabling the sled dogs previously belonging to Outdoor Adventures at Whistler (OAW) embark on a second life. WSDC took over the dogs after the previous manager of OAW was convicted of killing at least nine dogs. The remains of 56 dogs were found at the company's mass grave site. The former manager of the kennel entered a guilty plea to a charge of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.
Whistler Sled Dog Company was formed in late 2011, taking on 187 dogs before folding last July. WAG stepped in to help, and by the end of 2013, all the former Whistler sled dogs had found new homes.
"The Whistler community pulled together, and it just really showed the bones of the place that people were willing to step up and do what they had to do to help," said Whistler Happy Pets owner Rachel Evans, who has adopted two former sled dogs of her own.
"I think once you have one sled dog, you can't stop — you need to have two," she added. "You go on the Facebook groups, some people started off with one, and some of them now have three. It's crazy, they really are an addiction."
And even with 2010's horrific cull still fresh in the minds of many, Deweerdt, who plans to organize more sled dog reunions in the future, said there is "absolutely" a silver lining to the dark cloud.
"Look at all these happy people, look at all these people getting together. Wasp has just been a blessing to me — to know all these people, to get together with this group," she said. "He's enriched my life, and I know every owner's life has been enriched by these dogs.
"It's a total happy ending."