Sled dog tours and races should be banned

Peter Fricker

The Vancouver Sun

Published: March 24, 2011


As the provincial government’s Sled Dog Task Force prepares to release its review of the B.C. sled dog industry, a debate is raging over what its recommendations should be.

Those who believe the killing of 100 sled dogs in Whistler was an isolated incident simply want someone punished for the act, with no further action taken. Others think the industry needs some form of regulation (including some who think self-regulation is sufficient).

A third position, one held by the Vancouver Humane Society, is that sled dog tours and races should be banned. The head of the task force, Dr. Terry Lake (who is also the new provincial environment minister) has already indicated a ban is not on the cards. Lake, a veterinarian, is the MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, where dog sledding is a heavily promoted tourist attraction. He has stated that he believes the Whistler incident “is not reflective of the industry” and reportedly favours “best practices” guidelines for sled dog operations, along with revised animal cruelty laws.

At first glance, regulation seems a more “reasonable” course than an outright ban. The public can feel something has been done; the industry can be re-branded as responsible and accountable and tourists can have guilt-free dog sled rides.

This is a classic case of the tyranny of conventional thinking, in which the middle way (regulation) is automatically deemed to be the sensible way – it’s better than doing nothing and it’s not too radical. As Goldilocks would say, it’s “just right.”

But it’s not right, and here’s why. Regulation will never get to the heart of the real problem with commercial dog sledding: the commodification of the dogs. When animals are regarded as sources of revenue, their welfare can never be ensured.

The industry argues that sled dogs are different from other, non-working dogs. This is true: They are bred for endurance and to withstand cold. But should that justify a double standard when it comes to humane treatment? That’s exactly what the industry and its apologists maintain. Lake, for example, has said: “These are not pet dogs we are dealing with, and so the method of euthanasia in a veterinary office is not the only humane method of euthanasia.”

In other words, they can be shot. Do we shoot our family dogs when they’re old and sick? Oh, but that’s different isn’t it? Sled dogs don’t qualify for a humane lethal injection that guarantees a quick and peaceful death – that’s just for those sissy city dogs.

Most dog-lovers would agree that tethering a dog to a post for hours on end is not humane. Yet this is standard practice in the sled dog industry. Industry guidelines even recommend keeping dogs on concrete or plywood surfaces to prevent rock-eating, a clearly abnormal behaviour brought on by frustration and boredom.

But that’s okay. Sled dogs aren’t Yaletown poodles, y’know. They can take it.

Of course, sled dog operators don’t talk much about culling or tethering. It’s the dogs joyfully pulling sleds through winter wonderlands that they prefer the public to see. And sled dogs do love to run. They’ll run until they drop dead, a quality fully exploited in sled dog races. That’s why at least 142 have died in Alaska’s Iditarod race. Pushing a dog – any dog – beyond physical limits to the point where there is a risk of death is inhumane.

Why should sled dogs, just because they are hardy breeds that like to run, be denied the humane consideration that society accords other dogs? Romanticizing sled dogs does them no favours. It just perpetuates the myth that they suffer less when mistreated. That’s why there was so little criticism of the industry until the Whistler massacre put it under public scrutiny. That’s why Marcie Moriarty, head of BC SPCA cruelty investigations, told The Vancouver Sun she’s “glad a light is finally being shed on this industry. I just shudder whenever I see the ads for sled dog tours because I know how the majority of dogs are living.”

Sled dog operations are businesses – they exist to make profits, not to ensure the humane treatment of animals. It’s in their interest to create a differentiating mystique around sled dogs that absolves them of the duty of care that society expects of good dog owners.

But the only real difference here is that sled dogs are treated as commodities, not companions. As long as that is the case, their welfare and lives will be at risk.