A Cruel Race – The Risks of Dog Sledding

November 23, 2013

Tort

By Miranda Schmold – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

It is generally accepted that participation in most, if not all sports and activities, involves some aspect of risk and the possibility of injury. From some of the most low-key sports, such as bowling and golf, right up to extreme sports like motocross and hel-skiing and whitewater rafting, all carry with them some degree of risk and danger. Most reasonable athletes, professional, non-professional, recreational and the like, take responsibility for their actions, even when those actions result in their injury or death.

In pursuit of their sport or chosen leisure interest, people voluntarily assume the risks and acknowledge the risks they undertake along with the possibility of harm that may befall them should they participate in said activity or sport. Oftentimes it is the inherent risk and danger that makes many sports and activities alluring and exciting. From soaring through the air on a BMX bike, dangling from a cliff face attached to a single rope, tearing down a ski hill at top speeds, to slamming up against your opponent in a gridiron football game, these are just some of the elements that not only make these sports risky but also tempting and fun. As consenting and reasonable participants we are able to choose what activities and sports we participate in and the risks we are willing to accept in enjoying these pursuits.

But what about when the very sport or adventure activity being engaged in requires the use of non-human athletes? What about sports and activities where it is impossible to get the consent of the non-human participants? This is the case with dog sled racing and dog sled tours. Of course it is possible for the person controlling the dog sled in a dog sled race to acknowledge and accept the risk they undertake when participating in the sport, and it is possible for those engaged in a dog sled tour to accept the risk of participating in this outdoor activity, but there is no way to discern whether or not the dogs accept these risks or even wish to participate in the race or tour.

While the person controlling the dog sled is no doubt at risk for injury or even death, dog sled racing carries with it innumerable risks and dangers, mainly to those without which the sport would not happen, the dogs. The Iditarod is one such notorious dog sled race where the non-human athletes are put in tremendous danger. The Iditarod takes place each year in Alaska starting on the first Saturday in March. These sled dogs are forced to run over 1,600 kilometers in some of the most punishing and arduous terrain. The dogs race from Anchorage to Nome, which would be like running from Vancouver to Saskatoon, and they must do it in 8 to 16 days!

Since 1973 approximately 142 Iditarod sled dogs have died, although this only accounts for reported deaths during the race and does not include dogs that have perished while training. Sled dogs in the Iditarod are at risk of death, paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, sprains, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads, anemia, strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging, liver injury, heart failure and pneumonia.

About 53% of dogs that start the race do not cross the finish line. Additionally, many handlers are extremely cruel to these integral members of their sled dog team. For example, whipping, kicking, beating and starving dogs have all been witnessed as regular practices in the sled dog racing industry.

This situation is not unique just to the sport of racing sled dogs, but also occurs in the adventure tourism experience of sled dog tours. British Columbia is no stranger to the controversy surrounding sled dog tours. In 2010 the province was rocked by tragedy with the culling of 43 sled dogs by Robert Fawcett, former owner of Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. With the collapse of the sled dog industry in Whistler after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Fawcett admitted to slaughtering 43 of his sled dogs and burying them in a mass grave on his property in April 2010. After pleading guilty to causing unnecessary suffering, Fawcett faced a maximum sentence of 5 years in jail and up to $75,000 in fines as set out in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Criminal Code s. 447(2).

On November 22, 2012 Judge Merrick of the Provincial Court handed down Fawcett’s sentence as three years probation, 200 hours of community service, a $1,500 fine, a 10-year firearms ban and a 3-year ban on commercial involvement with animals. While this left Vancouver’s SPCA and animal welfare advocates reeling, the positive aspect that came out Fawcett’s trial and sentence was the development of Canada’s first Sled Dog Code of Practice and Standards of Care by the Province, the sled dog industry, veterinarians and the BC SPCA.

Unfortunately, the code of practice may not be holding up to all it was meant to be. In July 2013 yet another Whistler sled dog operation has closed its operations. Whistler Sled Dog Company was created shortly after the Fawcett scandal and even received many of his dogs. They hoped to run an ethical dog sledding company, but after operating for two seasons found they could not sustain their sled dog tours because of Whistler’s short 4-month season. Now the fate of 71 difficult-to-rehome sled dogs hangs in the balance.

The sport of sled dog racing has many inherent risks, mainly for the sled dogs themselves, of which they cannot consent to. It is up to the mushers and handlers of these dogs to keep their health and safety in mind when competing in this sport, however, history tells us that their best interests have not been a priority come race day. Many dogs that have competed in the infamous Iditarod have either perished while racing or suffered extreme or life threating injuries, not to mention the horrific conditions they live in and treatment they receive when not being raced. In contrast, the risks to the human athletes seem inconsequential. The risks involved with sled dog tours are equally as serious, with the main risk being that sled dog operations close after a short winter season, with no choice but to cull or euthanize a large number of challenging-to-rehome sled dogs.

While risk is inherent in most every sport and activity, we should endeavor to weigh the risks with the rewards. In the case of sled dog racing and sled dog tours we need to ask ourselves, is the manner in which we risk man’s best friend worth the reward of a few moments of animal entertainment?

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