Whistler’s sled dog massacre - Macleans.ca

Whistler’s sled dog massacre

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

by
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?”