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Dog sledding: An iconic tourist pursuit, but critics ask at what cost?


One of the most iconic tourist draws in Canada over cold winter months is being scrutinized by experts and activists. Once essential to the survival of indigenous communities, dog sledding is embraced today for sport, and also as a tourist industry. W5 investigates what sometimes goes on behind the scenes when dogs are not pulling paid customers, as animal rights activists ask tourists to reconsider this kind of entertainment.

Armed with a drone, trail and spy cameras, animal activist Francis Metivier went on a year-long mission from British Columbia to Quebec, to find out how sled dogs spend their lives.

He was on the road through sun, rain, snow and sleet between July 15, 2020 and August 28, 2021, flying his drone 66 times over 30 different outdoor kennels.

“I found a lot of dogs suffering, that's for sure,” Metivier told W5’s Molly Thomas in an interview. “I saw dogs shivering in the cold. Some were scared. Some were pacing back and forth nonstop over and over again."

Metivier shared just over half a terabyte of raw video with W5. Our team scoured through hours and hours of footage to see the patterns that emerge in different operations across multiple provinces.

What Metivier repeatedly spotted from the air were large snow or dirt circles on the ground, created by sled dogs tied to tethers. He noticed they spent most of their day on these chains, moving in a repetitive, circular motion.

“From above, you can see all those little circles, and all these circles are dogs just going around and around, nonstop. That's what they do pretty much all day,” Metivier said.

That repetitive circling is troubling to Rebecca Ledger, who has a doctorate in animal behavior and animal welfare science. She has been asked to testify at dozens of court cases, some criminal, on whether animals are suffering.

Ledger told W5, “When I see a dog that has been on a tether for a prolonged period and has started to display abnormal behaviors, dysfunctional behaviors such as stereotypic pacing and circling, then, yes, I'm concerned that that animal is suffering.

She went on to explain that “when dogs are tethered, it means that they are often deprived of a variety of physical and mental and behavioral interactions that are important to their well-being.”

Metivier estimates he documented at least 2,000 dogs. W5 reviewed the drone footage and, following the distinct chain circles, counted 2,205 individual dog houses in the 30 operations across four provinces he visited: British Columbia and Alberta had 4 kennels each, Saskatchewan and Ontario had two respectively, with the majority of dog sled operations running in Quebec.

The kennels come in all shapes and sizes. Five of the 30 sled dog operations had fewer than 20 dog houses, while eight had more than 100, including two operations with over 180 dog houses.

XP Miloup on the Island of Orleans in the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec City, is one of the 18 sled dog operations Metivier documented in Quebec. His drone footage from February 2021 shows 70 sled dog circles and houses. W5 looked at historic satellite imagery and found dozens of plainly visible chain circles going back to at least 2013.

This Quebec kennel was already on the radar of animal activists a year earlier when, operating as Expeditions Mi Loup, there was talk of a homemade gas chamber on the property, reportedly used to euthanize sled dogs.

Fern Levitt is an animal activist and filmmaker who was tipped off about it. Her 2016 documentary “Sled Dogs” exposed life behind the scenes for sled dogs that race in well-known competitions like the Iditarod.

“I had to find out if this was true, that this guy had built this gas chamber and was gassing puppies,” Levitt told W5. She says the employee that tipped her off had reported it to the Quebec Society for the Protection of Animals and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but claims they never investigated.

Levitt took matters into her own hands and, in February 2020, she sneaked onto the property at Expeditions Mi Loup to investigate herself, and came back with pictures of a plastic storage bin connected to a canister of argon welding gas allegedly used to kill dogs.

Levitt also found several dead puppies and an adult dog in a freezer.

Contacted by W5, XP Miloup claimed that it is under new ownership and would not speak to thee allegations. Its new owner, Tanya Fournier Veilleux wouldn’t return our repeated calls, but wrote in an e-mail: “I don’t want to be part of your story if it is to speak about the last owners and absolutely false allegations.”

During another call to XP Miloup, another individual, who identified herself as Elisabeth answered and claimed she was one of three owners of XP Miloup. After we identified ourselves, W5 asked if the gassing of dogs to euthanize them was still going on and was told, “no”. When we inquired about when the practice had stopped, the phone was hung up.

W5 reviewed incorporation documents which list Tanya Fournier Veilleux, as vice-president, an Elisabeth Leclerc, as secretary, and Antoine Simard, president, all current administrators of the company.

In Quebec, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food handles allegations of animal abuse. The Quebec City Society for the Protection of Animals can also play a role when there are complaints in its area of responsibility.

W5 showed both groups the photos Levitt found, but neither would confirm nor deny that it investigated XP Miloup citing provincial privacy legislation.

Euthanasia of dogs by gas is technically legal in Quebec as long as it is immediate and not cruel, causing an animal a minimum of pain and anxiety.

W5 shared the Levitt’s photos with the Quebec Veterinary Association which responded in an e-mail statement that “euthanasia by exposure to a gas mixture mainly composed of Argon may be acceptable, under certain conditions for some poultry and pigs, but unacceptable for all other mammals.”

“In this case, it is unacceptable for dogs. This type of euthanasia is considered too painful for other species and other approaches should be used.” Top Stories

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