Whistler’s sled dog massacre

Experts accustomed to probing human mass graves in war zones investigate the slaughter of dozens of dogs

Doggone mystery

Darryl Dyck/CP

Even now, it is the conflicted sense of apprehension that Marcie Moriarty remembers: hoping to find a mass grave under piles of junk in a forest clearing north of Whistler, B.C.—and hoping not to. Then the ugly reality of the dozens of tangled corpses of sled dogs emerging as the ground was sifted away by some of the world’s leading forensic investigators. That, and the smell of death that followed her home. “It brings shivers to me,” says Moriarty, general manager of cruelty investigations for the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s hard not to look at something like this and just lose all faith in humanity.”

Few murder cases, animal or human, have generated such instant revulsion as the gory killing in April 2010 of some 56 unwanted sled dogs belonging to Whistler-based Howling Dog Tours. The panicked animals were shot or had their throats slit in the presence of the 300-dog herd before being dumped in mass graves, allegedly by Bob Fawcett, then general manager of the company, and the man who raised and nurtured most of the dogs. Details of the gruesome killings leaked out in January after Fawcett filed a successful claim with the provincial workers’ compensation board, saying the cull left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Some I missed, had to chase around with blood everywhere,” Fawcett wrote this January on a website for soldiers suffering from PTSD before he retreated from public view. “Some I had to slit their throats because it was the only way to keep them calm in my arms.”

The case drew international outrage, blackened the reputation of one of B.C.’s premier resort destinations, and triggered a task force that toughened provincial animal cruelty laws. It was apparent, however, that pressing criminal charges required more than Fawcett’s unsubstantiated claims. Even unearthing the bodies was insufficient, says Moriarty, a lawyer. “What needs to be shown is that the animals suffered unnecessarily to prove the Criminal Code offence.” Last month, the society filed thousands of pages of evidence with Crown prosecutors, recommending criminal charges of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. It may be months before the Crown decides if charges are warranted.

Certainly the details of the compensation claim, based on information allegedly provided by Fawcett, suggest a horrific scene, even though it contains at least one major discrepancy: it states 100 dogs were killed, though the investigators eventually found 56. “As he neared the end of the cull that day,” the report says of the events of April 21, 2010, “the dogs were so panicked they were biting him . . . He also had to perform what he described as ‘execution-style’ killings where he wrestled the dogs to the ground and stood on them with one foot to shoot them. The last few kills were ‘multiple-shot’ killings as he was simply unable to get a clean shot. He described a guttural sound he had never heard before from the dogs and fear in their eyes.” The second day of killing, April 23, was even worse: “He noticed that a female, ‘Nora,’ who he had shot approximately 20 minutes before was crawling around in the mass grave he had dug for the animals. He had to climb down into the grave amidst the 10 or so bodies already there, and put her out of her misery.”

As a result of the leaked report, the SPCA mobilized a near-unprecedented gathering of top forensic experts, a group accustomed to investigating human murder scenes, unearthing the remains of serial killers or probing the mass graves and genocidal killing fields of Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere. Collectively, they have seen some of the worst atrocities mankind can inflict to fellow human beings, and yet the deaths of these dogs struck a chord. Many, pet owners themselves, were so eager to help they worked for free or for drastically reduced fees.

Much of the task of gathering the team fell to Gail Anderson, associate director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University and a specialist in forensic entomology, the use of insects in determining time and place of death, expertise used in dozens of murder cases and the Robert Pickton serial murders. She drew on the criminology faculty and students, and plumbed her contacts. “It’s a very emotional thing, so everybody was interested in getting involved in it,” says Anderson. Among five forensic archaeologists on scene was William Haglund, once chief medical examiner for the Seattle area and the United Nations senior forensic adviser for criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. He called upon his friend and colleague Douglas Scott in Nebraska, who has sifted through battlefields and mass graves and provided expert testimony in Saddam Hussein’s trial for the genocidal attacks on Kurdish villages in northern Iraq.

“It was a remarkable cast of characters,” Scott says of the group that descended on the isolated site this past May. The team was divided into three: those who exhumed the bodies, veterinarians who examined the remains, and some of the SPCA’s 26 sworn constables, who ensured potential exhibits weren’t tampered with should the case go to trial.

The first task was clearing and examining the scrap and wood debris piled on the site, in what seemed like an attempt to mask the graves. Their dimensions were determined using lasers, probes, and trenching. Several feet of soil was scraped away in stages with an excavator before the sprawling site was sectioned into grids, and the delicate work began on hands and knees. Scott used the kind of telescopic transit that land surveyors employ to make a three-dimensional map of the graves, charting the bodies using a computer-aided design program as they were uncovered with trowels, paintbrushes and delicate bamboo tools. After being photographed and assigned evidence numbers, they were carried to a triage site for X-rays and field necropsies, and then moved off-site for further examination in an attempt to determine not just the cause of death but whether they suffered a painful death.

Although the bodies had been in the chill earth for almost a year they were largely intact. “They were saponified, that is they had reached a waxy stage, but they were still recognizable,” said Scott. The sight and smell “can be disconcerting,” he says. “You also have to compartmentalize yourself a little bit and realize what you’re doing is trying to recover evidence.” Throughout the exercise, his friend Haglund wore a tie, as he always has at human gravesites, as a sign of professionalism and respect for the dead. “I’m here to help the dogs,” he told an interviewer in May. “They’re dead, but they can have a story to tell us. And we’re going to read that story.”

Anderson says the scientists treated the investigation with the rigour that human deaths require, knowing their findings may be held up to legal scrutiny and cross-examination. “Whether it’s an animal or a human case, when we end up in court, there’s no difference in the standard of the science,” says Anderson. “We must maintain those standards, it doesn’t matter if I’m dealing with a dead dog or a dead child, a dead man or a dead bear.”

The investigation cost about $250,000. The province provided $100,000 and the rest is being raised through public donations, as is the agency’s $26-million annual budget. It is the most complex investigation the SPCA has ever conducted, said Moriarty.

The Crown will decide who to charge, if charges are warranted. Joey Houssian, who owns Howling Dog Tours through his parent company, Outdoor Adventures at Whistler, said in a statement he requested the cull of “old and sick” dogs, but “we had every reason to believe this would be done in a professional and humane manner.” The maximum penalty is five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Some have questioned the expense of the investigation and why the dogs weren’t left in the grave. “Well, I can assure you those dogs were not resting peacefully,” Moriarty says. “We speak for animals. If we weren’t going to be speaking up in this case, in what case do we speak up?”


Whistler’s sled dog massacre

  1. I couldn’t finish reading the article, the matter is so repulsive. Credit and respect to those investigating.

    I refrain from stating what’s on the tip of my tongue.

  2. Just disgusting. You don’t have to own a dog to know just how amazing these creatures are. All they ask for is affection and love, and to see such horrible acts of cruelty placed on them makes it that much worse. Hopefully justice will be served for those involved. 

  3. Re: Govt Forms Professional Mushers Association of BC
    It is shameful of the Provincial Government  to use taxpayers’ money to perpetuate an inherently cruel and barbaric sled dog industry.  It was evident from the beginning of the review of one mass sled dog slaughter that the Task Force goal was to defend a horrid business in BC Tourism.
    The history of the sled dog industries reveals that the reported inhumane slaughter of dogs in Whistler, BC was not an aberration. It is inherent in the sled dog racing and tourism industries. The Task Force heard that there have been many, many cruelty investigations and charges laid. This industry cannot be trusted to police themselves
    Lifeforce responses to the BC Sled Dog Task Force Report are at:http://lifeforcefoundation.org/files/NEWSRELEASEAPRILSLEDDOGSBAN.pdf

    • The government did not form the Professional Mushers Association of BC.  Hard working families that live, work and recreate in BC formed the association.

      • The Professional Mushers Association of BC
        Is a group of proactive people that are working to create legislated regulations for the Dogsledding community in BC. Regulations that will be higher then anywhere else in the country. Your propaganda is ignorant and not factually sound at all.

        • The Government Sled Dog Task Force held meeting(s) to create this Musher Group. Government paid for it. The public can be misled into thinking that all is well. The name speaks volumes > for Mushers NOT protection of dogs!

          • The lucrative sled dog racing and tour industry of course will go along with the Liberal plan so they can try to avoid a ban!

  4. “Few murder cases, animal or human”

    Killing an animal is not murder.

    This is a sad story, and it certainly should have been handled differently by the owner, but its always much sadder to see people ranting about charges being laid and people going to jail over some dogs, while they sit idly by as our government participates in the NATO bombing and killing of Libyan civilians.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love animals.  I have two cats, and have owned and loved dogs as well.  I have never hurt them, and I can’t even stand it when people tease an animal, let alone abuse it.  However, if it comes time that I am no longer able to look after my animals, it is my right as their owner to kill them (humanely of course).

    Shooting an animal in the head or heart, or slitting its throat with a sharp knife, is EVERY BIT as humane as taking it to the vet, laying it on a cold steel table, and killing it by lethal injection. 

    The operative word here is ownership. Our western legal system rightly recognizes that animals are property.  I OWN a dog, just like a farmer OWNS livestock.  It logically follows that if anyone has a right to kill an animal, that person would be its owner.  If people believe that we shouldn’t be able to kill an animal, it again logically follows that we cannot own it, and if we cannot own it, what right to we have to confine it in a house, cage, barn or pasture?  Unless you are a vegan and can back up your opinion with a moral opposition to eating animals and their products, you need to think about what you stand for if you believe that legislation should be introduced to declare animals as something other than property.

    I am aware this opinion will bring some backlash, just try to rise above pure emotion in your response.

    • – 2) A person responsible for an animal must not cause or permit the animal to be, or to continue to be, in distress.
      – (1) A person must not cause an animal to be in distress.(2) A person who kills an animal
      (b) must not, in killing the animal, cause the animal to be in distress or do anything that is prohibited by the regulations.

      Just some relevant regulations. I think we will find that the individuals testimony coupled with a forensic review of the way the animals were put down will show that they were quite horrifically treated. To assume that the right of ownership paradigm we have inherited is permissive of abusing animals simply because we own them is quite a stretch. It is not the nature that someone killed their pet that is being criticized here, it is the massive cull of at least 56 sled dogs for the sole purpose of economics that is hard to swallow. One must wonder if adequate efforts were made to find a home for these dogs – and if not legally required maybe an addition to the BC legislation is in order.

      Animals are something other then property as defined in BC law. There is a level of ownership that requires custodianship, not simply property.

      I am sorry but I reject your claims.

      • Have you ever been in a slaughterhouse? There’s a whole lot of distress going on in there.

  5. Liberal Task Force head Terry Lake would not even allow a moment of silence for the slaughtered Whistler dogs as Lifeforce urged. Why? It was they who suffered for this abusive industry to be exposed! Now the Liberals will be part of the crimes NOT the solution to stop the cruelties.

  6. What is so special about dogs that we react as if they were children? How many chickens were slaughtered because of the bird flu scare, pigs because of swine flu, or sheep and cows because of foot and mouth disease or mad cow? And not in “compassionate ways” either. I love dogs, but I’m guessing a lot of these outraged people aren’t exactly vegans (and neither am I). I just don’t see why a dog should have so many more rights than another animal of similar intelligence- in fact, pigs are smarter.

  7. Yes, dogs are animals and not people.  But for those few who have not twigged to it: there are people who love animals vastly more than they care for other people – sometimes because other people have caused them nothing but misery and pain, whereas animals rarely do – and it’s not our place to judge them by our standards for the relationship between any particular animal and a person.  To some, this is “huh?”, but to others, this is the equivalent of a crime against humanity.  It is an emotional matter, not a rational one.

    • Dogs are better then people and than u.

  8. shame, shame! the killers should bear the cost of the investigations…a max penalty of $10,000 doesnt even begin to cover it!

  9. If they were killed to be eaten as AT LEAST 1 reason by the one who killed them, that’d be fine. But for cash ONLY? You will have something VERY bad happen to ya. Most likely someone you care for being taken away from ya. It’s karma.

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