The Morality of Dog Sled Tours and Responsible Travel

In my post, To Zoo or Not to Zoo, I discussed animal welfare and the responsibility of the traveler when taking part in animal related activities around the world. In that post I showed my true colors as a bleeding-heart animal lover, a title from which I do not shirk now. That is why I was so shocked when I read a story that came out last week about Canadian sled dogs.

I won’t go into a lot of the details, you can read more here, it’s just too heartbreaking for me to relate. In short, more than 100 huskies were killed in Whistler, Canada by the owner of a sledding tour company after business slumped following the Olympic rush. The dogs were mercilessly shot and stabbed to death and thrown into a mass burial pit.

As the owner of two rescued Siberian Huskies, this story struck me to my core. After my initial reading of the gruesome news piece, I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. Even now, as I write this, I am having an incredibly difficult time wrapping my head around this tragedy. But it has made me wonder what led to this massacre and how can it be prevented in the future.

The first question that came to my mind was why wouldn’t the owner just take the dogs to a rescue organization of some sort. We have three rescued dogs and I know first hand the importance of these organizations in saving the lives of dogs that otherwise may have been lost. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it unlikely that one, or even several, rescue organizations would take in that many sled dogs. First is the incorrect notion by some in the animal welfare community that working dogs, such as sled dogs, are not possible to rehabilitate; they are too used to their lifestyle and could never acclimate to a home situation. I just can’t imagine this to be true. It wouldn’t have been easy and it would’ve required commitment by many people, but these pups could have been saved and most of them probably would have been able to live out the rest of their lives in the company of loving owners. After their years of service to man, they deserved at least the opportunity for a peaceful life.

Even if the dogs were too infirm or could not be adopted, they should have been dealt with in a far more humane manner.

But this isn’t an animal rights website, it’s a travel website and that begs the question, how responsible are we as tourists for massacres such as the one that occurred in Canada. I’m sure there are many animal experiences around the world in which the animals are well treated and their participation in the tourism industry actually helps their conservation and overall well-being. But, without any facts or data to support my supposition, I have to believe that such places are in the extreme minority. Rather, most animal related experiences probably result in horrendous cases of animal abuse and an overall miserable life for the animals involved. Oddly enough, one such example is one that I myself have wanted to try, dog sledding.

I always just assumed that because the tour operators in Canada and Alaska were established and the dogs always look happy, that these dog sled rides must be fine. I myself have never been on one, but I had been hoping to try it soon, until now. Frankly, I am torn. On one hand, I want to tell the world to avoid dog sled experiences so as not to encourage future tour operators from entering the industry. But in so doing, that would only hurt the dogs currently involved in these operations. Also, from my personal experience with my two huskies, I know how much this breed loves to work, please people and frankly just pull anything. They are an ancient breed, and for most of their history their sole purpose has been to live closely with people and work for them in harsh, Arctic climates. To deprive these brilliant animals of what they love to do is itself cruel, isn’t it?

So what does it all mean and what should we, as tourists, do in these situations? The answer isn’t a simple one, and it must vary by location and involves some advance research. First, the government must play a role in animal related travel experiences. In many areas of the world, zoos and aquariums are accredited through an international association and at least in the U.S., the government does have rules and regulations regarding the care of animals in these situations. But in many areas,  animal experiences are poorly regulated and even if rules are in place, they are very rarely monitored or enforced. A stronger government presence would allow the traveler to know which companies are legitimate and which are not. In the absence of such a monitoring system, copious research should be conducted by the tourist in order to ensure that the tour operator is legitimate.

My first inclination would be to avoid all such experiences, but that’s not fair either. It’s not fair to the animals, the tour operators or the tourists. If done properly, these activities can benefit everyone and responsible ways to participate in education and conservation is vital. One thing I do know though, you won’t find me on a dog sled tour anytime soon; instead I’ll be holding my dogs extra tight, thankful I was able to at least rescue them from an uncertain fate.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

23 thoughts on “The Morality of Dog Sled Tours and Responsible Travel”

  1. Oh, that truly is heartbreaking. I couldn’t even bear to click on the link to read more, just reading what you wrote was painful enough.

    I struggle with this so much. I love animals, and I love seeing them up close. They are so fabulous. But their enclosures just never seem big enough to me. Even in some of the drive through wildlife parks, it looks like they just don’t have enough room to run. Just like, I love looking at tropical fish, but I’ve never seen an aquarium that seems big enough for them to really swim – and I’ve seen some huge ones.

    So for me, the few times I go to any kind of animal display, it’s always a guilty pleasure. I come away loving the chance to have seen such wonderful animals and, at the same time, hurting for them and feeling guilty because my patronage contributed to their captivity.

    I’ve heard that zoos often conduct research that is helpful to the animal population, and that many also rescue animals. But I still feel like I should not be part of the demand for such places, just as I should not buy pork because I’ve heard that pigs are kept in a torturous environment until they are slaughtered for our food. I often go long stretches without eating pork, or going to a zoo/aquarium. But when I do…I feel like I’ve done something wrong.

    Especially if it could lead to anything even nearly as horrific as those majestic huskies being stabbed to death. That’s a nightmare.

    1. I know, I feel the same. It’s a tough line to walk. I love zoos, I really do and I am fairly confident that the large ones, at least in the US and Canada, are doing good things. But I would never go to a small zoo or aquarium, because I know that the conditions are probably awful.

  2. I love the photos of the pups. The points you make in your piece are good ones and really make you think. I’ve been to zoos and aquariums around the country as well as in Germany and I always feel bad for the animals. However, I know that in many zoos, the animals that are there have been born in captivity (many times illegally) and the zoos rescue the animals and raise them. To release these animals into the wild would be cruel since they have no concept of how to survive.
    But, I’ve often wondered about other animal expeditions like riding a camel in Egypt or a burro at the Grand Canyon. Honestly, I have a fear about riding on anything that has its own brain, but that’s another story on its own. However, I know that there are many places where vehicles can not go and it would take much too long to hike there on foot, so riding an animal (or a sled pulled by animals) is the only way to experience a certain area. And, as long as the animals don’t appear to be in pain or show evidence of neglect, I would venture say that the animal was bred to do this and wouldn’t thrive if it didn’t have a job to do. Much like a domesticated lion wouldn’t know how to hunt and live in Africa, a camel likely wouldn’t know what to do if it wasn’t shuttling people around the desert.

  3. I couldn’t agree with your article more. I think many people feel the same way. What happened in Whistler is horrific, and there needs to be action so that it doesn’t continue. There are people who have been calling for change for a long time now, and it is horrible that it has taken something like this to get attention from the media, and government. What is important is that we don’t let this become last weeks news. We need to remember this and follow through with regulations and enforcement. There are responsible dog sled tour companies out there. I worked for one for 4 years, and continue to adopt their retired dogs. Dog sledding can be an amazing experience for dog lovers, or it can be heart breaking. For anyone who is interested I would recommend that they take a look at and click on “a dog’s life”, and “Ethics” even if you are thinking of dog sledding somewhere other then Canmore, their site is very informative, and gives tips on what to look for in a dog sled company.

    1. Michelle, thanks for that unique point of view and the great information. I have no doubt that there are many, responsible dog sled companies out there, just that the consumer needs to research and be aware.

  4. We’re bleeding heart animal lovers as well and try to stay away from any tourist attractions that involve animals… It’s a big dilemma because we do enjoy seeing animals, especially those in the wild. Compromise usually involves hours of research whether or not the activity in mind would harm the animals in anyway. Some companies are more ethical than the others and we try really hard to ensure that we support the ‘good’ ones. It can be a very tiring research process…

  5. A good friend of mine actually used to work for Outdoor Adventures (the company responsible). Our mutual friend was the manager (not the GM that has been implicated, his #1 guy) of the dogs at the time.This whole thing is like a bad dream. Needless to say no one has heard from him and he is in hiding somewhere. The locals have the torches and pitchforks ready to crucify. We just hope he wasn’t involved, he is a total animal lover and always treated them well (he even adopted 2 of them) so I can’t imagine he would be involved, but people do terrible things when money is thrown around.
    Nothing can really be done either until the 7 meters of snow melts and the SPCA and RCMP find the mass grave. My friend has shared info about the company that I should prob refrain from posting on such an open forum. My hope is that people realize that Whistler is not the problem, it is this one criminally negligant company. Everyone is sickened by this news. Protests with dogs have marched through Whistler village.
    Let’s just hope that at the very least, this sad day opens up the dialogue to prevent something like this from happening again.

    1. wow, thank you for commenting; this is indeed personal for you then. No, I don’t blame Whistler or even dog sled tour companies, but it brings to light an important issue that must be addressed. It also reinforces the necessity of the tourist to do their research before using any animal related tour company.

      1. Indeed. I think the biggest disappointment for locals is that the company was very reputable. The community feels betrayed. It looks like justice will prevail though.

  6. Matt, thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. As a vegetarian and animal lover, I always want to make sure my choices are not bringing harm to any animal. I’m glad you brought dogsledding to the forefront of discussion, it’s one activity I hadn’t thought about before and a I certainly won’t be trying in Breckenridge this week.

  7. Horrifying. Utterly disgusting. I hope Cam, who commented above, knows that no one would blame Whistler for the actions of one sociopath.

  8. As someone who loves dogs, this is just heartbreaking. A slow tourism year does not mean you should kill hundreds of dogs. Clearly, the tour operator did not have a passion for what they were doing or for the animals they worked with day to day. People who lack passion in any field can truly commit such senseless acts.

  9. I just don’t understand how anyone could physically do that and be able to sleep at night time. It was good to read cams comments though, that the locals are reacting with anger to this as well. It is not a cut and dry situation re animals and tourism and every single country would have this dilemma re do you support the business or stay away from it?

  10. I live in Vancouver and have to say everyone out here is disgusted by this. In Whistler/Vancouver people appreciate the outdoors and spend time doing activities such as this. So when the news broke, I was shocked! This is not how we roll as Canadians and is something you always hear from other places, not here. The worse part? We wouldn’t have known unless the Manager who did the killing didn’t apply to receive Government long term disability for mental stress (which it sounds like he received?!)

    People in Whistler love their dogs and you see them everywhere. This was a senseless slaughter as I’m positive if he tried to give them away they would have been taken. Plus we have a government animal agency – the SPCA – that would have taken the animals. Absolutely unneeded.

    1. Oh I know that you all are gutted over this, who wouldn’t be. And while I know this person is certainly the outlier, I do think it brings up some interesting thoughts that tourists need to keep in mind. That not everything is a perfect situation and it is the tourist’s responsibility to research and not do more harm than good by visiting.

  11. A bit of hope? Here’s a story by travel blogger “Bacon is magic” when she met in Manitoba, Canada, the town’s local celebrity dog racer/musher Dave Daley, founder of the Hudson Bay Quest: Dave rescues dogs which have been abused by “bad” mushers… Obviously can’t take them all in. He’s already caring for 27 dogs, rescues included and treats them as the top athletes they are, even buying them special protein dog food from Quebec!
    Anyway, I recently went to visit 3 weeks ago and just wanted to say I wish there were more people like Dog Whisperer Dave… And such a great story teller! If you ever wander off towards Churchill, Northern Manitoba, summer or winter be sure to pay the doggies a visit and let them take you for a ride!

    1. Thanks for sharing! It’s definitely a sensitive subject and I know there are some great people out there who really care. We just need to do our research when selecting an operator.

  12. Great post. I feel the same and I’ve been involved in the dogsled industry for 10yrs. I’ve worked for large kennels and currently have 10 dogs of my own. I’ve seen amazing owners and I’ve seen absolute crap owners. I was so dismayed with mushing in general that I completely stepped away from it and had nothing to do with it for 3yrs now. Not because of inhumane treatment, but more the attitued and egos of some mushers. And where there are big egos, there is a complete focus on the musher him/herself, not the dogs.

    Luckily, the majority of mushers really truly love their dogs. They care for them until they are old and cry like babies when one passes away. These are the type of mushers who spend more on their dog food/care than they do on themselves. They spay and neuter their dogs and ensure there are no “accidental” litters. They ensure the dogs are gettting the care and attention they deserve.

    That said, I feel the mushing industry needs some regulation but also, mushers need to call out fellow mushers when they see mistreatment – they are the ones who know and who see each other out on the trails when no one else is around. That’s why doing “research” is not going to give you the whole story… tourists often don’t see the “real” kennel. You don’t see the day-to-day frustrations of a musher who may have way too many dogs and not enough money coming in. Or a year where there is little snow and they can’t run their normal tours, or a slow tourism year, etc, etc. The dogs may look happy, but dogs can look happy regardless of what is going on in their lives!

    That is why it’s imperative for others to speak out when they see issues. Tourist reviews can be useful though, getting a general vibe for the place and speaking out as loud as they can when they see problems can go a long way. And if you want to go take a tour – contact others in the mushing industry and see who they recommend, that’s where you’ll get a good indication of who is good and who isn’t.

    1. Thank you so much for your very unique and important point of view, I really appreciate it. It’s a tricky issue and really hard to figure out as a tourist. That being said, if done right I think it’s a great activity.

  13. One thing I would add in (and I’m sure others have said it) is to just try and do some research about what kennels are in the area. I’m from Alaska and lot of the Iditarod mushers offer tours out of their kennels. I would trust private tours from locals over a large outfitter personally. So sad to hear about those dogs :( but doing research definitely can help tourists make informed decisions about who to give their money to!

  14. Very interesting article Matt. Thank you.

    I recently experienced my first sledding experience in Sweden, a leisure activity run by a French couple. I was a little concerned about the humaneness of this leisure activity but figured I had to see what it was really about first. We arrived early and I spent the time closely observing the dogs and the owners and (with my limited knowledge) felt comfortable enough. It was a fantastic experience and I felt very privileged to have the opportunity. I regret not having asked questions such as: “what happens to them in the summer months in Europe?” and “what happens to them when they are too old to continue?”

    I actually owned a Husky many years ago in South Africa (I was born there but now live in the UK) Sky was a gorgeous dog, a stray we picked up on a motorway. Looking back, it astonishes me how ignorant I was. The climate was obviously not ideal, nor the size of our property. He spent long, hot days in a large zinc bath we used to keep filled up with water. We loved him nonetheless and he loved us too – spent many an evening on the settee with us watching TV.

    When we emigrated to England 12 years ago however, I made sure he went to a new home with owners who knew about huskies and they were thrilled to have him.

    My dream holiday is to go to Alaska and when I do, I will be sure to check out any dog sledding tours before I embark on one!

    Thanks again


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