NEWS
12/14/2011 08:17 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

Animal welfare forms backbone of new Whistler, B.C. sled dog charity

VANCOUVER - The former owners of a Whistler, B.C. tour operator that had dozens of its sled dogs slain in a brutal two-day cull are trying to recover the sport's good name with a philanthropic act that also minds business considerations.

Outdoor Adventures at Whistler has donated all its assets to a not-for-profit foundation which will operate a company, Whistler Sled Dog Co. All the profits from the company will go towards the foundation's aim of improving animal welfare.

Investigators dug up the bodies of 56 sled dogs from a mass grave in the popular ski resort town last spring.

"There'll never ever be a confusion around profit versus dog welfare — it will always be about the dog welfare," said Sue Eckersley, a director of the newly-created Sled Dog Foundation, noting its mandate has been clearly explained to company employees.

"That is our single biggest focus and that's not something that will fail us."

Outrage resonated around the world when the gruesome killings, which took place after the 2010 Winter Olympics, were first revealed.

The B.C. SPCA launched a $250,000 probe that culminated with the recommendation of a criminal charge against tour operator Bob Fawcett in September.

Provincial Crown lawyers are still reviewing the single count, relating to causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal.

The owner of the company Fawcett worked for, Joey Houssian, has donated his business's land leases, kennels, equipment and 150 dogs from the original pack, plus two new puppies that were born four months ago.

He said the shocking allegations against Fawcett prompted the decision.

"After significant research and consultation with animal welfare experts, academics and others, my team concluded that we would try to influence positive change for the industry and for the welfare of sled dogs," he said in a news release.

Eckersley, one of three "avid dog-loving" directors of the foundation, said in an interview the dogs are in their prime and will continue giving tours through snowy weather. The company will also look to run on a more year-round basis.

The company expects to generate "significant funds" that in the first year will build up the operation, and then go towards various animal welfare programs. It will also serve as a research base on sled dog behaviour and care, sharing the information it gains and the practices it establishes.

"Dog sledding has been part of Canadiana for centuries," Eckersley said, noting she expects it still to take some time to erase the stigma associated with the killings.

"So (the goal is) to get it back to what it needs to be viewed as, and also to help other operators rise the level of their operations to a point where we'll never have incidents such as that again."

Research indicates dog sledding is the third most popular activity in Whistler, after skiing and snowboarding, she said. The board of directors and the previous owner are confident it will become a viable business.

"We're going to create a model that shows that you can have happy, healthy well-cared for dogs that actually make your business more profitable and is something that can be emulated."

The company has plans to find the dogs homes when they reach retirement age of about seven or eight, she added.

The SPCA led its massive investigation after learning about the disturbing cull via a leaked worker's compensation case last January.

The documents were filed by a man claiming he was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder in relation to the killings. They also describe a bloody tableau in which dogs were shot or had their throats slit in April 2010.

The account suggests upwards of 100 dogs were killed, although the investigation only turned up about half.

It also alleges the operator carried out the violence on orders to reduce the pack due to a slump in sales following the Winter Games. Owners have denied ever giving such instructions.