The fate of Canadian sled dogs

In the heart of the Canadian Rockies, hundreds of sled dogs – naturally energetic, free-spirited animals – spend their days tethered to a six-foot chain.

On Saturday, November 16, activists from the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) occupied two dog sledding facilities near Canmore, Alberta to protest the cruel exploitation and abuse of animals by the sled dog industry. Footage of the lockdown, posted to YouTube yesterday, shows sled dogs chained to posts and suffering in filthy conditions at Mad Dogs & Englishmen kennels just outside the city.

Since the action, the Canadian media has focused on three very human elements of the story: 1. the fact that the activists broke the law, 2. the specific laws they broke, and 3. the number of activists arrested. The angle that has received almost no media attention, so far, is that of dogs in pain. In RMOToday.com’s coverage of the action, the publication chose not to include photos or videos of the suffering dogs, which activists made public on DxE’s Facebook page.

For animal advocates, this was an obvious faux pas. Winter is high season for sled dogs. If there was ever a time to draw attention to the dog sledding industry, it’s now. In Canada, where many people still consider dog sledding a family activity, cruelty to sled dogs will continue unabated, until publications focus on the problem at hand.

“In a country where more than 35% of households reportedly have one or more pet dogs, local Alberta animal rights whistleblowers have rioted during investigations into Howling Dog Tours, Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Snowy Owl Dog Tours,” said writes the new DxE. Calgary Chapter in a Facebook post after the action.

Between the three companies, all based in Canmore, investigators discovered more than 500 dogs chained to six-foot lanyards for more than 23 hours a day during the off-season. After further investigation, the group repefound injured and malnourished dogs with lack of access to food or water and inadequate housing conditions.

Cruelty is well documented in the dog sledding industry – and routinely ignored. Kennels like Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which run dog sledding tours around Alberta during the winter season, hide the cruel mistreatment of their dogs behind pictures of smiling, snow-capped huskies. The reality of the situation could not be more different. In the video, the dogs stare desperately at viewers, yearning to get attention with chains around their necks. This is the cruel and cold nature of animal exploitation: maximizing profits, not animal welfare. Mushers regularly push dogs beyond their physical limits, often crippling them for life. When the dogs prove no longer useful, they are put down.

Read Jessica Scott-Reid’s exclusive: “Summer is the cruellest time for sled dogs”

“Not uncommon in the commercial dog sledding industry,” Scott-Reid writes, “are piles and pits of dog bones, which activists have found in various locations across Canada.”

In kennels, sled dogs spend 95% of their lives tied to a six-foot chain. This creates a completely unnatural and cruel living environment for these energetic and hypersocial animals. At the first sign of visitors, the dogs circle, desperately tugging at the metal posts that hold them in place. Even when the activists approached the dogs, scratched them back and rubbed their bellies lovingly, the others barked and howled in unison, pleading for someone, anyone, to set them free.

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Bette C. Alvarado