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.