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SPCA 'stunned' by sentencing in Whistler sled dogs case

Probation and $1,500 fine for Robert Fawcett after nine dog deaths is 'shocking' says agency

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The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is unhappy with the sentencing for the man behind the sled dog slayings near Whistler in April 2010.

Robert Todd Fawcett, 40, is not going to jail. Instead, the former manager of the company which used the dogs to provide sled tours has been fined $1,500, ordered to do 200 hours of community service and sentenced to spend the next three years on probation.

Judge Steven Merrick also ordered Fawcett not be involved in any commercial operations connected to animals and Fawcett is restricted from possessing firearms for 10 years.

“To say we are shocked by this sentence for these gruesome killings is an understatement,” said Marcie Moriarty, chief prevention and enforcement officer for the BC SPCA in a release. “I can honestly say that the BC SPCA did its job to the fullest extent in this case, and in my opinion, the courts did not.”

Moriarty added that the case had wide implications for the treatment of working animals in Canada.

Judge Merrick said he started the day intending to reserve judgment, but what he heard through the day convinced him a sentence was best delivered as soon as possible. The hearing wrapped up at just after 6 p.m. Courts in B.C. rarely ever stay in session that late.

In delivering the sentence the judge said he did not intend for it to be taken as a criticism of the B.C. SPCA and he stressed that the fine in no way relates to the value of an animal's life.

"It is difficult to assess a fine for a crime that caused the unnecessary suffering and pain of nine living beings," said Merrick.

The BC SPCA’s investigation led to the charges of animal cruelty against Fawcett and the non-profit society also worked to bring about significant changes to the way the sled dog industry operates in B.C.

The BC SPCA was a key contributor to a government task force that was created to examine ways to ensure more humane treatment for sled dogs and to the creation of a sled dog code of practice that was adopted in February 2012.

While Fawcett admitted that in April of 2010 he shot to death or stabbed more than nine dogs, the judge said only nine suffered unnecessarily so his sentencing had to be based on that number. Fawcett pleaded guilty in August to a single count of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.

The former dog-musher spent most of the day staring blankly down at the desk in front.

A number of new details emerged from the hearing. It was learned that Fawcett recently came to terms with sexual assaults he endured as a child.

It was revealed that Fawcett was whisked from his home by Workers Compensation Board (WCB) representatives after he received death threats following the public release of the details of the sled dog cull.

According to Crown Counsel Nicole Gregoire, Fawcett's already fragile mental state declined further when the world learned of his actions to reduce the size of the sled dog herd he managed for Whistler Outdoor Adventures (OAW), under the company name Howling Dog Tours Whistler.

Fawcett and his family were housed in a hotel under a false name then moved to a new hotel when it was determined his safety was at risk after his location was discovered.

In an attempt to keep him safe, WCB moved Fawcett to a facility in Guelph, ON. Judge Merrick characterized that move as being very similar to being in jail, despite the fact that technically it was not a prison.

Gregoire also revealed that Joey Houssian, owner of OAW, declined a request from the RCMP to be interviewed regarding the matter.

Previously Houssian has told Pique that he was not aware of the mass cull, though he understood some dogs had to be euthanized for health reasons.

Gregoire said that to her knowledge Houssian was never interviewed by the police in regard to the way the herd of dogs owned by his company was reduced in April of 2010.

According to statements from both Gregoire and Fawcett's lawyer Greg Diamond, OAW's sled dog operation was under severe financial stress and Fawcett was being pressured to reduce costs and maximize income.

The cull of what is now reported as 56 dogs took place over two separate days, April 21 and 23. Both Gregoire and Diamond explained that the dates were strategically chosen. OAW's sled dog operation was reportedly under significant pressure to produce more revenue because the company's finances were tight.

The cull was put on pause April 22 because tours were booked on that day while no tours were planned for the day before and the day after.

Fawcett has a year to pay his fine and the victim surcharge of just over $200 that goes with it and he has until February of 2014 to complete his community work service.

The judge asked Fawcett if he wanted to address the court.

"No sir," said Fawcett in a quiet voice barely audible from the public gallery.

Crown counsel earlier told the court that he was remorseful and devastated by his actions.

While Moriarty says she was dismayed by the sentence handed down, she believed much good came out of the investigation.

“The sentencing... was about one individual and one horrific situation, but this case has also been about the bigger issue of making changes to legislation and industry standards to protect sled dogs across B.C. in the future.”

With files by Cathryn Atkinson.

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