There are now high hopes for sled dog operations in Whistler after the industry hit an all-time low last winter when the world learned details of a shocking dog cull that took place near Whistler in the spring of 2010.
The company connected to the tragedy has been reborn and transformed into The Whistler Sled Dog Co, a foundation-owned operation run by a new entity called The Sled Dog Foundation.
Sue Eckersley is the driving force behind the foundation. In the span of less than seven weeks she and a team of concerned people created the foundation and struck a deal with Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW) to take over the dog sled operations formerly run by OAW.
The owner of OAW, Joey Houssian, donated 152 sled dogs and all the tools needed to go with the dogs to operate a tourist attraction.
The donation included the land leases, vehicles, sleds, kennels and more.
"The response I have received in Whistler has been extremely positive," Houssian wrote in an email message to Pique. "I have received an incredible amount of email and those I have seen and spoken to have been very supportive. For 10 months we have been working on different concepts with regards to the business and determining the right thing to do. The Sled Dog Foundation is the culmination of this work and represents the greatest opportunity to influence positive change for sled dogs."
Housssian said that the sled dog company employees all love animals and they were impacted by the cull of some of the company's sled dogs.
"While we voluntarily closed the dog sled operation we kept our staff on to care for our dogs over the past year and I'm really pleased to see that everyone has transitioned to The Sled Dog Foundation," Houssian wrote.
With snow on the ground now, the new company is operational and booking tours for the season at its tour area in the Soo Valley north of Whistler.
"This is a hugely popular activity in Whistler so it is important that we do it right," said Eckersley, whose passion for dogs starts with her own blue-heeler cross Dexter.
"We've had an amazing response from everyone on this."
Tourism Whistler (TW) backs Eckersley's claim that dog sled rides are a big draw for visitors.
Breton Murphy, TW's senior communications manager, reported that statistics from Whistler.com indicate the popularity of dog sledding is on par with other activities like snowshoeing and sleigh rides. He noted that visitor surveys have put dog sled tours in the top ten Whistler winter activities.
"We're very pleased to see this development," Murphy said of the transformation of the OAW dog sled operation. "The gifting of the sled dog operation to this charitable foundation will help promote the improvement of animal welfare of sled dogs. This community-based, grass-roots initiative reflects Whistler's long-standing commitment as a dog-friendly resort concerned with animal welfare."