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Grisly cull puts spotlight on sled-dog recreation

Framed by sleds, a sled dog runs to a kennel truck after returning from a tour run by Outdoor Adventures Whistler in the Soo Valley north of Whistler, B.C., on Monday January 31, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

The dogs are vibrating in their harnesses, baying and yipping as their handlers ready them to pull a sled on a wooded trail through Callaghan Valley, just south of Whistler.

At a shout from their musher, the dogs take off, the sled and its two passengers hurtling behind them. As the dogs power around a curve and out of sight, Jaime Hargreaves watches with a critical eye, noticing which one is pulling slightly to the side, which one seems distracted and how newly paired dogs are adapting to each other as they run.

Bright-eyed and sleek, the dogs look as though they're keen to work.

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"When I started this business, I wanted to change the way it's run, I wanted to show people how happy these animals were," says Ms. Hargreaves, who runs Canadian Sled Dog Adventures.

That goal has now become a business necessity, as a grisly sled-dog cull by another Whistler-based company has cast a spotlight on the sector and resulted in calls for more oversight or an outright ban of sled-dog tours.

Ms. Hargreaves, whose company operates under the umbrella of Whistler-based outdoor recreation company Canadian Snowmobile Adventures Ltd., the revelation that scores of sled dogs were shot and buried hit her like a physical blow.

She worked for a time at Outdoor Adventures Whistler, the company associated with the cull, and believes she probably fed, petted and mushed some of the dogs now buried in a mass canine grave.

Besides the personal pain of losing what she considers pets and companions, Ms. Hargreaves is also reeling over the impact on her business, which she launched in 2005 as a small, boutique operation that emphasizes dog welfare and a wilderness experience.

Sled-dog tour operators across the country are concerned that the cull, which has resulted in an outpouring of public rage and contempt, will unfairly tar all operators.

Such a large, indiscriminate cull is an anomaly, Ms. Hargreaves and other operators say.

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Her dogs are kept in an onsite kennel, fed a mixed diet of raw meat and kibble and run a maximum of three hours a day.

In the off-season, the dogs hike, swim and romp on expeditions Ms. Hargreaves often leads on her mountain bike.

The operation is small by design. With 300 dogs, she said, referring to Outdoor Adventures Whistler, "it's hard to see how there could not be abuse."

Dogs that are terminally ill or diseased are euthanized. When that happens, Ms. Hargreaves takes them to a vet for a shot.

Sled-dog tours account for a small, but growing, part of Canadian Snowmobile's business, says general manager Craig Beattie.

On Tuesday, Mr. Beattie was fielding calls, including some cancellations from people upset by reports of the deaths. But he was also on the phone to prospective new customers, including a woman who wanted to book a tour for her daughter's ninth birthday but grilled him on the dogs' living conditions first.

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After her tour, customer Lisa Schrader was beaming.

"These dogs look well-treated and happy," said Ms. Schrader, who is from California.

In Whistler for Winter Pride, Ms. Schrader had taken in several activities, including a zipline outing and snowmobiling. The dog sled tour was her favourite.

After it ended, Ms. Schrader hung around the kennels, cooing over dogs with names including Punky, Brewster, Black, Sitka, Cedar and Arbutus.

The dogs, which include Husky crosses and German shorthaired pointers, begin pulling sleds when they're about 1½ years old and can do it for more than a decade. When some dogs get too old or slow to pull their weight, Ms. Hargreaves takes them out on runs with an empty sled, to prevent them from pining.

She found an adoptive home for one dog, but took him back after his owners concluded he was too much to handle and she decided the dog would be happier back with his sled-pulling peers.

In his adoptive home, Ms. Hargreaves says, he was sleeping inside and getting steak for dinner, but still paced and whined.

"Think of how many dogs are at home, sitting on the couch and getting depressed," she said, tussling with a sharp-toothed puppy for a tennis ball.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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