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Dog sled operators respond to activist arrests, call for better regulations

“It is unfortunate that a group of people, who know that no laws are being broken, can protest this way to push their values. They want to tell us what to eat, what we can and can’t do. We at Howling Dog Tours will not accept this. We believe the freedom to choose a lifestyle is truly Canadian – we do not believe one needs to break the law to do this.”

CANMORE – Following the recent arrests of 15 protesters who are charged with breaking and entering to commit mischief for storming sled dog compounds near Canmore on Saturday (Nov. 16), sled dog operators in the Bow Valley are speaking out.

The activists held signs, while wearing dog chains around their necks, protesting outside the dog sled tour companies, Howling Dog Tours and Mad Dogs & Englishmen, when RCMP were called to the  kennels east of Canmore on the 1A Highway. Approximately 30 protestors broke into the kennels to "protest the treatment of the dogs," an RCMP press release stated.

"At Howling Dog Tours, the health and wellbeing of our dogs is paramount to us," Rich Bitner, owner of Howling Dog Tours wrote in an emailed statement. "It is disturbing that a group of people has to resort to criminal activity that led to the health and wellness of our dogs being threatened."

Organized by the Direct Action Everywhere (DXE) Alberta chapter, Edmonton organizer Max Mah spoke to the Outlook the day of the arrest, noting the group are "non-violent activists" who are protesting to "pressure the government to pass laws to protect animals" for what they dubbed Liberation Lockdown.

“So [Liberation Lockdown] was an occupation to gain attention to the plight of sled dogs and the industry and show how they actually live, tethered to these chains for the vast majority of their lives when they’re not pulling sleds, and to show the conditions by social media and call into question our government officials and the mainstream media as well and negotiate possibly rescuing some of these dogs in distress,” Mah said.

At Liberation Lockdown, protestors “went into the compound where the dogs are being held to lock themselves down with the dogs,” said DXE member Ryan Park.

“We want to raise awareness and wake people up who pay for these things … they see the happy dog and they see them running around, but they don’t see where they spend the majority of their life,” Park said.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Leigh Drinkwater confirmed 14 adults and one youth were facing criminal charges of break and enter to commit mischief after being arrested at the kennels. The accused are not being named at this time and are scheduled to appear in Canmore Provincial Court on Jan. 15, 2020 for their first appearances.

Meanwhile, other sled dog operators in Canmore said that while they believe the protestors and activists were correct in their concerns and “believe their hearts were in the right place,” they do not support individuals who resort to criminal activity in order to be heard.

“Although our kennel was not involved in this protest, we are thankful to know that our local RCMP are prompt and respond to this situation seriously by arresting those who committed criminal offences,” Carlin Kimble, owner of Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours wrote in an email to the Outlook.

“Sled dog welfare has been an ongoing issue across Canada for decades. There is currently no government-sanctioned organization that regulates the sled dog sport. We need sled dog welfare to be mandatory – not optional.”

The director of the Canadian Coalition for Sled Dogs echoed the statement for accountability in the industry.

“There is currently no mandatory code of care in place for sled dogs aside from local SPCA acts and regulations," Carmen Baum, director of the Canadian Coalition for Sled Dogs wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, those regulations are not typically checked or followed up on until a complaint is made. There is a serious lack of accountability where care is concerned."

Alberta Environment and Parks officials stated there are no kennels on provincial parks land, but they do permit dog sled operators to use Alberta parks, with a conditions document on animal health and care that applies to dog sled owners traversing provincial parks.

The conditions include the following: 

• Any operator convicted of animal abuse or neglect may have their permit suspended or cancelled. Animal abuse or neglect should be reported to both the SPCA and the department.

• No dog shall be brought from a kennel where rabies, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, giardia, or any other contagious disease exists.

• All operators must provide written proof from a qualified veterinarian to the department that their dogs have had a vet check within the previous six months prior to the start of the operating season (i.e. since May 1 of the previous season) and that they have had rabies shots and all standard shots addressing disease common to this area. All dogs should be free of parasites.

• Scat samples may be taken by conservation officers randomly and tested for disease. Information gained from these tests will be shared with the operator.

• All dogs must be controlled in harnesses or leashes or kept in kennels at the staging areas and on the trails. This includes dogs which are considered pets.

The Outlook made multiple attempts to contact Mad Dogs & Englishmen for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.

On the company’s website, which it calls the sled dogs part of their family, it said:

“We believe that good dog care must be proactive not just reactive. This means that setting up a system that requires regular and thorough checking and care of each dog is important. We work closely with our vet to ensure the health and safety of each and every dog in our kennel and when out on the trail. This takes [a lot] of love, time, money and dedication but we wouldn't have it any other way.”

Howling Dog Tours operators said after recent inspections from the SPCA and government of Alberta, the company not only meets all regulatory requirements but “exceeds them in many ways.”

“It is unfortunate that a group of people, who know that no laws are being broken, can protest this way to push their values,” Bittner wrote.

“They want to tell us what to eat, what we can and can’t do. We at Howling Dog Tours will not accept this. We believe the freedom to choose a lifestyle is truly Canadian – we do not believe one needs to break the law to do this.”

Snowy Owl Sled Dog operators said the wellbeing of its sled dogs is the primary focus as well.

"We would like the government to consult with organizations such as the Canadian Coalition for Sled Dogs to regulate and implement better sled dog welfare," Kimble said.

"We would also like to see the tourism industry take more responsibility since dog sledding is such a popular activity, it is important that the wellbeing of sled dogs is the primary focus."

While none of the sled dog operators who spoke to the Outlook condoned criminal activity, the Canadian Coalition for Sled Dogs officials said it's hopes the continued demand for better care for sled dogs, in Alberta and across Canada encourages consumers to make responsible and informed choices while also encouraging those who keep dogs to make the changes needed to improve their welfare.

"It's time for change, country wide," Baum said. "We are already seeing animal welfare laws change and evolve across the country and The Canadian Coalition for Sled Dogs is here to collaborate with government law makers to improve the lives of Canadian sled dogs."