Forensic experts who have studied mass graves in countries such as Rwanda and Guatemala will this week begin to unearth the remains of up to 100 Whistler sled dogs allegedly killed in a mass slaughter last year.
The specialists, including some involved in investigating the B.C. property of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, will start by clearing the site of debris and earth and are expected to be exhuming the animals' bodies by Thursday, BC SPCA spokeswoman Marcie Moriarty said.
Investigators will be looking for any evidence that dogs experienced pain and suffering before they were killed - findings that would be key if criminal charges were to be laid in the case.
"Those are the key elements in the criminal code," Ms. Moriarty said on Sunday. "It's basically critical for [Crown prosecutors]in determining whether a criminal-code offence was committed when these dogs were killed."
News of the mass cull broke in January when it was learned that a man linked to the killings had filed a workers' compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from killing the dogs.
Details from that claim - including dogs having their throats slashed, being killed "execution-style" and being tossed into a grave - resulted in international headlines, widespread shock and revulsion and a spotlight on the sled dog industry.
The BC SPCA launched an investigation into the events but had to wait until the ground thawed before it could examine the site where the dogs are believed to be buried.
The exact location has not been disclosed, but it is near Whistler and has been secured to allow painstaking excavation to take place, Ms. Moriarty said.
Some of the same experts, and similar techniques, will be involved as when investigators scoured the rural property owned by Robert Pickton, who was convicted in 2007 of the second-degree murder of six women.
Teams will dig through the Whistler site by hand, collecting and photographing any bones or body parts and looking for other information, including shell casings.
The province and the SPCA are sharing the cost of the investigation, which could be as much as $225,000.
Ms. Moriarty described the investigation as a pivotal case for animal welfare, in B.C. and farther afield, saying that several key experts now involved in the investigation called the BC SPCA on their own initiative to offer their services.
A thorough investigation is required to determine how many dogs were killed and how they died, she said.
"The eyes of so many people were on this case, were shocked by this case, so there needs to be some kind of closure," she said. "The reality is whether it's a dead body or a dead animal, the forensic science is the same. And the evidentiary standard is the same."
Amid the uproar over the cull, former premier Gordon Campbell in February appointed a task force to review the killings. After the task force's report in March, new Premier Christy Clark said B.C. would act on all of its recommendations, including certification of sled-dog operators and steeper penalties and longer time frames for offences under B.C.'s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
Currently, the act has a six-month limitation on prosecuting offences.