Whistler Sled Dogs, Robert Fawcett, and the SPCA

In April 2010, Robert Fawcett killed and buried as many as 100 sled dogs on the orders of his boss at Outdoor Adventures Whistler. This act was discovered in 2011.   Who failed the sled dogs?

When Eleanor Matthews was an BC SPCA field agent from 1997 to 2000 she covered the Pemberton area, Mount Currie and Whistler. (All photos were given to the SPCA.) In 2006, after her efforts to have SPCA head office properly investigate what she had documented had failed, and after having her report published in local Whistler newspapers and still no meaningful action from the SPCA, she sent her whole file to AAS.  We published it and we had several phone conversations with her in which she told us some her questions about why the SPCA, as Eleanor said, "was sweeping this under the carpet".  Though many complaints were made over the years, still no meaningful action was taken by the SPCA until the dogs were dead. (The secretive SPCA, though an agency of the government by the act of having statutory powers granted to it by the BC government long ago, refuses to give certain information the government requests about its enforcement activities, so there is no way to know how many complaints it received over this long period, but there were many and the SPCA knew that when someone told them Fawcett's dogs were in bad shape that in fact they may have been in "distress" the offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA Act.) and could have been seized many times in those years.

Click on images below to enlarge

In 2000, Eleanor Matthews had a complaint from the public about 73 sled dogs belonging to Robert Fawcett's Howling Dogs Sled Dogs company that were being kept in crates on the back of two trucks. The crates are suppose to only be used for transport to and from snow sledding jobs, but were being used to keep the dogs in, rather than in proper, permanent kennels. 
Not all got out every day except for their one meal. Some crates had two to three dogs in them. When Matthews went to investigate she was alarmed at the condition these dogs were being kept in and was told by the owner/operator that the dogs only got water once a day in their food.
This was not only alarming but contrary to the SPCA's own stated kennel standards. All the dogs were underweight as can be seen in the photos.  Matthews also believed that Howling Dogs owner, Robert Fawcett, bought some dogs from SPCAs and that he was "in cahoots" with the SPCA in some way.  If true, that would be a reason to leave Fawcett alone, not charged, keeping him out of court where the SPCA's involvement in his business, whether by supplying him with dogs or by keeping him in business by not ever shutting him down, would be exposed.
Matthews kept the pictures and the newspaper clippings of this complaint that the SPCA swept under the carpet which she gave AAS in 2006. She quit her unpaid volunteer job as an agent for the SPCA because she refused to work with an organization that does not do what they tell people they do.

Click on images below to enlarge

According to the Whistler Question (in an article written on April 1, 2009), Dr. David Lane investigated Fawcett's sled dogs on behalf of the SPCA: "Dr. Lane does four kennel visits a year and those reports are sent to the SPCA."

Animal Advocates attended the sentencing of Robert Fawcett on November 22, 2012, and we learned that Fawcett's vet was also Dr. David Lane. So Fawcett and the SPCA were using the same vet to check on Fawcett's dogs.

2012, November 22, Bill Good program, CKNW Vancouver

In an interview with Good, Eleanor Matthews said that

  •  - John van der Hoeven, the then Head of SPCA Cruelty Investigations, told her that he didn't see any signs of dogs jammed in crates in spite of their agent's photographs and statement.
  • -  That the SPCA received "constant complaints".

WAGS, the Whistler pound, also said that when it received any of many complaints it always told the complainant to report it to the SPCA.

AAS was complained to about Fawcett's dogs in 2009 by Sheree Porter-Thomas.  She too complained to the SPCA.  (Scroll down to read.)


SPCA probes two dog sled operations

The B.C. SPCA is investigating two local dog sled tour operators following recent complaints from guests that some dogs appeared to be malnourished.

Eileen Drever, senior animal protection officer with the SPCA, said she’s dealing with a couple of ongoing investigations in regard to sled dogs in the Whistler area and the conditions under which they’re kept. The SPCA has issued orders to operators and failure to comply could lead to legal action under the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, she said.

“The SPCA’s not happy with the way these dogs are kept,” Drever said.

She could not name the companies or provide further details because of the ongoing investigations.

Though the SPCA has investigated local dog sled tour operators in the past, the current scrutiny is taking place after at least two people who took tours in January contacted the SPCA with concerns about the condition of the dogs and their care.

Palm Springs, Calif. resident Sheree Porter-Thomas said she went on a dog sled tour with her husband when the couple was visiting Whistler in January. She arranged the tour through the Hilton but was later told the tour operator was Blackcomb Snowmobiles.

Porter-Thomas said when the pair arrived for the tour she noticed how thin the dogs looked and the way they cowered away when she tried to pet them.

“They were really afraid,” she said Tuesday (March 24). “They were just cowered back and it just wouldn’t come over to me.”

The dogs did not appear healthy and Porter-Thomas said she could see their ribs and the bones in their heads. The dogs didn’t appear to want to be harnessed to the sled for the tour and they were pulling away, she said.

“They were little skeletons,” Porter-Thomas said. “I’ve never petted a dog’s head and felt only bone.”

Other guests remarked on how thin the dogs appeared and after the tour several were asking the guides about it, she said. They were told it was partly the dogs’ breed, that some of the dogs are finicky eaters, and they stay thin because they run so much.

“They kept giving us these excuses,” Porter-Thomas said.

After returning home to Palm Springs, she wrote a letter about her experience to a Whitehorse-based organization called Sled Dog Watchdog and PETA. She then sent the letter to Whistler’s mayor and council and eventually got in touch with Drever at the SPCA, Porter Thomas said.

Vancouver resident Tanya Vignal also sent letters to the mayor and council and the SPCA after a similar experience in January. She said she felt “guilty” and “sick” after taking a dog sled tour with Blackcomb Snowmobiles and seeing dogs that looked malnourished and unwell.

One of the dogs had diarrhea while it was pulling the sled, and the dogs weren’t provided with water to drink after the exertion of the tour, Vignal said.

“The dogs don’t have a voice and I feel really bad,” she said. “Whistler is such a dog-friendly community.”

Blackcomb Snowmobiles President Shawn Wilson said he’s “hurt” that a couple of guests have concerns about how the sled dogs are being treated. Of all the local kennels the one his contractor runs is at the “top of the list” for care of the dogs, he said, and these are the only complaints he’s heard of all season. The dogs are approachable, mellow and “super fit,” he said.

“We’re super happy with our dogs,” Wilson said.

Tanner Moody is the contractor Blackcomb Snowmobiles hired this winter to provide sled dogs and do the tours. Moody, who has been in the dog sled business for about 10 years in the Whistler area and in Banff, said his “temporary” kennel is located in Mount Currie. He has 48 dogs — a small number compared with other local operators.

The dogs are kept in individual pens, not on chains, and most have insulated houses for the cold weather, Moody said. They’re fed premium, high-protein dog food and meat, and they’re seen regularly by local vet Dr. David Lane, who has given them a clean bill of health, Moody said.

A message for Dr. Lane was not returned by The Question’s press deadline.

“They’re getting food put in front of them probably about five times a day,” Moody said. They’re also given water regularly and the vet hasn’t reported any problems with dehydration, he said.

Some of the dogs dropped some weight during a cold snap in January, he said. The dogs can also appear thin because they’re a husky/hound cross and they burn up to 6,000 calories a day, he said. He compared them to marathon runners.

“A lot of them, yeah, they are lean but they’re right around the decent weight,” Moody said.

Moody said he’s complying with the SPCA’s orders to have the dogs’ teeth checked, to increase their food amounts and to put them on a more effective de-worming program.

Wilson said Moody is working with SPCA officers and is open to their site visits and follow up. Wilson also invited the mayor and council to take a tour and see the dogs first hand.

Staff at WAG, Whistler’s animal shelter, and the municipality’s bylaw office didn’t know how many complaints have been received recently about local dogsledding operations. Kristi Broadbent, Whistler’s animal control officer, said because the various operators’ kennels are located in the Pemberton area and the Callaghan Valley, they’re under the jurisdiction of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. She said any complaints coming through the municipality are being referred to the SPCA.

“They (the operators) are providing a Whistler experience so we definitely want to make sure there’s no ill treatment of animals,” she said.

spca probes two dog sled operations

So far, crown reading agreed upon statement of facts. It's a damning indictment of #BCSPCA and OAW owner Joey Hussein. #bcpoli
Brett Mineer (@BrettMineer)
Many, many layers of failure here. #BCSPCA , Joey Hussein never interviewed... #sleddogs #whistlersleddogs
Brett Mineer (@BrettMineer)
@jackieasante We also heard a lot of damning stuff in court about #BCSPCA failures, and negligence on behalf of ownership of company.
Brett Mineer (@BrettMineer)
@kerri976 From the beginning - Fawcett has been honest. Same can not be said for OAW ownership or BCSPCA. #sleddogs #whistler


Brett Mineer (@BrettMineer)
I have a lot to say about this #sleddog final chapter. I'll write something and get it hosted somewhere and tweet a link in days to come.


Sentencing Notes: November 22, 2012: Provincial Court, North Vancouver BC

Pointed out:

SPCA didn't investigate after a report made in January 2010 by someone named Coughlan. SPCA didn't investigate after Fawcett contacted them, before he killed the dogs, asking the SPCA to rehome dogs and was refused.

Another instance was given of the SPCA's failure to prevent gross cruelty: A neighbour witnessed a man repeatedly punch and kick and beat a dog with a hammer. When the dog got loose and tried escape, the man dragged it behind a shed and beat it some more. The SPCA was called but didn't come, so the RCMP were called and they did come.

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