i was a sled dog blog
one person's journey advocating for sled dogs - rescued, retired, former, fired, or in need of help
one person's journey advocating for sled dogs - rescued, retired, former, fired, or in need of help
I had intended to post a piece on April 21 to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the Whistler sled dog massacre, but one of my own dogs has been sick and to be honest, revisiting that part of the Whistler dogs' story - even after all these years - brings on a lot of emotional weight that's difficult for me to temper right now.
The piece I was working on was about the commercial sled dog industry being a numbers game.
Like any business, owners and operators need enough dogs to accommodate the bookings. Not enough dogs and they may not make enough money to cover costs; too many dogs and they also may not make enough money as there are too many mouths to feed. Because there's food, vet care, employees, marketing, kennel upkeep and their own living expenses to pay for.
Then there's the dogs who age out, get sick, whose chronic pain is too much, aren't good at pulling sleds (surprise! not all dogs bred to be sled dogs take to the sport), die or are killed. Those dogs have to be replaced. Where do those dogs come from? Is the kennel breeding or having enough 'accidental litters' or are they buying them? The number game continues.
Then there's also having to speculate on what the next season holds. And oh yeah, what to do with the dogs in the off season if there's no snow in the winter. Or what if the tourists don't come because of a global pandemic?
But right now... today... I'm going to keep things brief and remember back to the few days in September 2013 when me and my camera tagged along with fellow sleddie advocate Penny Stone, to go to Whistler and visit the site where the 2010 massacre happened. By the time I got there, over three years had passed since the killings and there had been a couple iterations of sled dog businesses trying to make a go of it, but in the end they closed up shop and decided to find homes for the dogs (there's more to the story than that, but it's covered in other areas of my site). The day I arrived, there were 44 dogs, all survivors of the killings. 43 who were now ready for a new chapter in their lives, and one who was already writing that chapter for herself. If these guys were to follow in the pawprints of some of their already-retired and adopted kennel mates, there would be limitless choose-your-own-adventures to come.
It was hot over those few days with the temperature reaching 40+ degrees celsius up in the mountains north of Whistler, BC. And as I wandered around the property, dogs always followed. And not just me, but any human that was there - treat or no treat. Every time I turned around, a cute little face was there. If I sat down, someone sat next to me and would sniff, check out my cameras, get some pets if they wanted, then lay down for a nap. It made me think about the dogs who are kept chained - which some (if not all) of these dogs were, a short time back. Sled dogs that are kept chained don't get to follow people around, go check things out, visit and play with their kennel mates, sniff things and find the perfect shade spot for a nap.
Kennel runs cost money. Perimeter fencing so dogs can free-run safely costs money. Spay/neutering costs money. More staff to provide enrichment for the dogs costs money.... just to name a few.
And it circles back to being a numbers game again.
But I digress.
And now it's taken me much longer than I wanted to put this together for many behind-the-scenes reasons which are weighty, but also because once I start writing, there are so many topics I want to cover, that I get sidetracked writing down into rabbit holes that are just too big to get into right now. I may revisit that 'numbers game' piece, only time will tell.
I share this all because as much as I've always tried to keep this about the dogs, today the human behind this work feels a need to explain why she didn't make a big post two days ago. Why she's not making a big remembrance post today, April 23, also known as day two of the killings.
Trust me, she hasn't forgotten, nor will she ever.
To those 44 survivors, thank you for paving the way back then and proving that there was more to you than being only a sled dog. For showing us all the breadth of what you're capable of, given the chance:
Arctic, Bowser, Candy, Chocolate, Cola, Daffy, Dandelion, Gretzky, Gummi Bear, Heineken, Honda, Hooters, Hurricane, Ice, Igloo, Inky, Jet, Joffre, Johnny, Kawasaki, Kayla, Kilo, Kirby, Lady, Lucky, Manny, Misty, Myers, Noodles, Nooner, Nordique, Oilers, Pancake, Pez, Rocket, Rolo, Sapporo, Sausage, Silly, Snow, Sonny, Sun, Whiney, Wiggles
Some of the photos below I haven't shared before, including a video of me sitting with some new friends in the shade. We were just around the corner from some other humans and many dogs, but in those 55 seconds - even as I was acutely aware of the events on that land in the recent past - this moment was about being right there, right then.
As the last sleddie hopped into her foster's car to head on to a new life, I had to reflect on what this project is all about and why I'm doing this.
There are many reasons why I continue to document former sled dogs coming into care (more which will be chronicled very soon), but one of them is to give a face and name to those who have been a part of the industry while educating people on what it's like for dogs who come out of it.
So here's the intake of six former sled dogs who came into the care of the Victoria Humane Society yesterday evening. They made the journey from Whistler to BC to West Vancouver where they were took a ferry ride to Nanaimo, then transferred into VHS care. The transport volunteers drove them to Duncan where they had a pit stop for water and a potty break, got their harnesses fitted, GPS tracker attached and then back into the van for the short drive to Victoria and VHS HQ.
Then they got their hardware checked, got double leashed for safety and their foster homes met them one by one to take them home.
Vet visits for check ups and procedures, including some spays/neuters will be next, once they've had a breather.
Ace, Bear, Biggie, Catty, Loki and Porsche (along with Maddy a 7th dog who went to her foster home before I got to meet her) woke up as sled dogs and will go to bed as dogs covered under our domestic animal protection laws (which need updating, but it's a start).
In this small intake, two dogs were super fearful (Ace + Catty), Bear (who has an injured leg which will be getting looked at) was tentative but moved in close for pets, Porsche loved the ear scritches (similar to scratches, but scritches are on THE spot) and was seemingly content as long as a buddy was in view. Biggie was a treat hound and totally chill and even had a nap while waiting to head home... and Loki wanted to lean in close and get so much love... from whoever was closest.
Welcome to retirement gang and thank you to everyone who made this happen for these special pups!
(and to Charla for mopping out the van to get ready for the next intake for VHS)
To learn more about former sled dogs, please wander around this site.
To see the diversity of 198 former sled dogs on one page, go HERE
To learn more about VHS or contribute to the care of the sleddies, please visit: www.victoriahumanesociety.com or visit their very active facebook page.
full gallery below:
What's makes meeting and photographing the handsome Loki this evening kinda special? He's the 198th former sled dog I've documented coming into retirement over the last decade!
I know I've met more, but for whatever reason, there is no photo - no name to attach to a face - but for Loki and 197 others, there is. And that's important. Because for the industry that paints all sled dogs as sled dogs who like to 'work' and 'pull', they are individual beings with needs and likes and dislikes. And yes, they are totally adoptable. Like any dog, some will be happy to spend most days curled up in a sleddie donut napping and getting in a walk or two a day. Some will want all the walks and adventures. Some will be nervous of new homes, smells, sounds, sights. And some will walk right into a house as if they've always lived there.
And what's more... these new retirees are now covered under Canada's animal protection laws (however substandard they are- that's another post)... but instead of being grouped under the agricultural animal laws, they are now considered domestic pets.
No, their DNA didn't change in the course of the trip from Whistler to Victoria, BC, it's just the fact that they were used for industry and now they aren't.
Sounds crazy because it is.
For now, Ace, Bear, Biggie, Catty, Loki and Porsche are going to have time to adjust to their new world, get some vet checks (and spays/neuters) and live as special beings they are.
Thanks to the volunteers who helped make this happen. All these guys will be available for adoption through The Victoria Humane Society, so watch their facebook page for updates. (if their fosters don't fail and adopt them, themselves!)
At our last sleddie reunion back on April 26, 2016, we saddled up a few dogs with the GoPro dog harness, mounted the camera and let them go!
I'm not sure Question, Cane or Ash even realized it was on their backs.
To those who know the dogs in this video, they will see some friends they haven't seen in a while and some who've passed on - including dear Question - who showed us her view this day.
But aside from just being a light-hearted video, it also shows a reunion in which more than 50(!) former sled dogs got to choose.
Choose who they sniff. Choose what they sniff. Choose where they go. Choose their own route to the other side of the lawn. When to run with friends and when to lay down to chill. They had the chance to use their noses to smell their way around - where to go, where not to go.
The modern sled dog industry doesn't account for their dogs having choices. They have very little, if any choice in how they spend their days.
It's all routine.
Routine wake up. Routine meals. Routine pacing on the chain. Routine work.
Routine is efficient. Routine and systems keep the operation going. Time is money.
I understand dogs like routine. They're dependent on us so a routine can help them feel safe, get on a potty break schedule and when food is coming.
But when that routine is all encompassing and not just the Five Freedoms, but also the updated version of Five Domains Model of Animal Welfare, are not being met, that's a huge problem.
The research is there. The science is there.
The industry is antiquated and it's had its run.
The full blog post and photos from this reunion can be found here: www.wendynesbitt.com/blog/not-so-secret-society-of-sleddies
Thanks for checking in!
It's a word that comes up a lot when I talk about former sled dogs. To be uprooted from all they know, to travel for hours in a van with people they don't know, popping out for potty breaks in new places, to another place that's wholly unfamiliar. Then be whisked away to strange places with more stranger humans and maybe new, strange dogs. It's a lot. For me, being a photographer means being an observer. A watcher. Other people 'do' and I 'watch'. I sometimes feel like I should put down my camera and help when I'm photographing a new intake of dogs - and I have at times - but I've learned the importance of documenting in a measured (and hopefully) meaningful way with the aim to allow others to bear witness to the work that goes on behind the scenes when new animals come into the care of rescues.
On January 31, nine former sled dogs arrived into the care of the Victoria Humane Society. I was there to photograph the event and met 8 of the 9 dogs. These sweeties were mostly as I expected in a group of sleddies - some were very nervous with full tail tucks and cowering, some were checking things out, some would not make eye contact and just did continue yawns and lip licks, I suspect trying to help calm themselves.
A few days later a meet up was organized for a Saturday afternoon. Herman, Kerri, Sparkles and Tig had been in their foster homes only 5 full days but once again, the sleddies were showing proof of their resilient natures.
Dogs that a few days ago were pretty terrified, got to sniff and see each other. Walk together.
But when I got home and went through my photos I felt something was missing from the set of images. In my mind, I'd gone in with some sort of expectation - something I generally try to steer clear of - but I really wanted to get a photo of Herman looking at the camera. Herman who I didn't meet on intake because he was so frightened on arrival he went immediately from the van into his foster home's car and off they went.
But Herman wasn't in to looking at me when I had my camera out, so I spent time crouched, waiting for him to come to me and then giving him chest and shoulder rubs.
The same thing happened with Tig. She's quite a nervous gal, but by the end of the walk, I caught her looking for me - or more likely the treats I had in my pocket. Cupboard love is alright in my books if it helps the dog learn to trust.
Kerri was very outgoing and stoked to go! She did a lot of leans in for pets, and paws for more attention and treats. It was adorable!
Sparkles did her own thing. Just observing the group, having a few sniffs of her mates and on to more observation.
In the end, my main focus of this journey is to share the existence of the former sled dogs that arrive into care. Their names and their faces represent a life not many are aware of.
But now they represent a team behind them, helping them recover.
And they represent resiliency.
Sleddie roll call: Herman, Jasper, Kerry, Sparkles and Tig.
Also pictured is a big Newfie dog that arrived as we were leaving so Jasper (who's been retired since 2015) had to do some awkward playing.
Thanks to everyone who came out!
It was evening when they arrived and the welcoming crew was waiting... the beds, meds, food and foster homes.
The day of travel for the volunteers had been long - up early to catch the ferry, drive to the meeting spot just outside of Whistler, BC, load up the dogs, back on the road, back on the ferry, transporting nine dogs onto a whole new life.
The object on arrival was to ensure the dogs were safe. That meant they were fitted with harnesses and collars, leashed and were assigned a GPS tracker which was clipped to their collar.
First out was Pumpkin. This fellow had recently undergone surgery on his eyes and it wasn't healing. He came in to the shelter to await his foster humans, and in the meantime he sniffed around, made friends with the volunteers, had some treats and a nap on the bed under the desk.
We had thought each dog would come in to the shelter so I could get their photos as it was dark out when they arrived. I really didn't want to use my flash on them outside for a number of reasons, but as with all intakes of new dogs, you do what's best for them. Pumpkin, Teddy, and Cap were more relaxed and crossed the threshold into the Victoria Humane Society with ease and a touch of curiosity. Batman, Tig, Stevie and Sparkles were more nervous so I did my best to get photos of them before they left with their fosters, but none were very interested in looking at me. Kerri was rearing to go and didn't want to come inside so I captured her from a distance (with flash). Herman arrived and left before I even saw him.
Living in a home will be new for these guys. Even though a few of them have couch napping experience, the sights, sounds, smells of being in a home 24/7 will bring along some challenges. The loving foster homes have all been briefed on what may happen with a sleddie in the home - they may find them atop tables and counters, they may eschew comfy beds and sofas for hard floors, ignore toys, they may not eat or drink for days (or only when the humans sleep or are in other rooms), or be afraid of food dishes. They may try to escape you or your home (hence the GPS), they may not engage with you at all and their tails may stay tucked for days or weeks.
It's all to be expected. It's all normal.
One just needs to look at how sled dogs live in a commercial kennel to see that they are usually fed atop their dog houses, their water may be in a bucket attached to their dog house so it doesn't move around and sits at a particular height, they don't know toys. If they've only ever been a working sled dog and this is all they've know... all this new can be very scary.
They just need time to decompress. To figure it out.
The support group here is on hand and ready to help and I'm eager to see how this group settles in. There are plans for a group walk soon, so stay tuned for updates!
Thank yous go out to all the volunteers who helped bring these dogs into care and to the fosters who've opened their homes to these remarkable dogs.
And to the Victoria Humane Society , extra big thanks for being there to help sleddies in need... always.
Most of all, to the dogs. They try so hard to fit into our world and are just doing their best.
Welcome to retirement Batman, Cap, Herman, Kerri, Pumpkin, Sparkles, Stevie, Teddy and Tig xo
January 31, 2021
Nine former sled dogs made their way into retirement today.
Nine former sled dogs will sleep in a home tonight and all nights going forward.
Nine former sled dogs will no longer have to work for their keep.
Nine dogs who were not covered under companion animal protection laws this morning, are covered by them tonight.
To Teddy, Tig, Cap, Kerri, Batman, Sparkle, Stevie, Pumpkin + Herman (not pictured), welcome to retirement.
(more words and photos about this story to come, so please check back)
Calli Calli Calli stopped by for some neck rubs today... and to pick up some food donated by a friend that will help feed her three sleddie foster siblings.
Calli can’t really reach and scratch her own neck these days because of arthritis and age so I’m happy to help anytime I can.
Doesn’t she have the sweetest sleddie smile?!
She didn't want to look at me when taking her photo... whatevs... I'm used to it by now.
Love you Calli girl!
Wanna learn more about Calli? Click here!
#adopt #sleddies #sleddogsaredogs #lookbeyondthebrochure
June 27, 2020: the day newly-retired Vinnie got to show that he was more than what his past as a sled dog dictated.
Does he love to run? Sure! But he also loves treats and playtime with dogs and humans. He showed he was inquisitive and trusting and deserving of a life in the lap of love.
Vinnie was adopted soon after this!
Full photo gallery here: an evening with old friend + new friends
Morley (formerly known as Splash, who came into care back in April) got adopted by a local family so I arranged to meet up with them on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon.
After about four months in a foster home, Morley found her family just 5 weeks ago, but has made herself at home. Her family is part of our local sleddie community and this will be the second sleddie they’ve welcomed into their home! They adopted Otter a few years ago and were fortunate to love her for her a short, but sweet time.
I know it can sometimes take years for families to learn their sleddies’ like and dislikes, but I had to ask what they've learned so far:
Likes - pillows, cheese, cuddles, laundry (dirty or clean), morning tummy rubs, playing with the hose and getting muddy with her adopted brother Apollo and being the little spoon during bedtime cuddles.
Dislikes - men yelling, car backfires, and she cowered when she heard the word ‘No’ directed at her
Morley is a reserved gal, but when she has time to relax, she starts to open up. She’s adventurous and is showing her young brother all about water and how fun it is to get muddy! She also has a pretty high prey drive, but does have a cat friend.
Not a lot about her background can be confirmed but it’s believed she came from the same kennel in the Whistler area that many of the most fearful sleddies in our community have come from.
But whatever her past, her future looks to be amazing.
Thanks to Victoria Humane Society for bringing this girl into care and for TJ and family for giving her a new chapter filled with love, care and compassion.
I like to share my sleddie photos in a series when possible as I believe it helps to better share a better glimpse into the personality of the dog. The ear radar, eye movements, body postures, tail wags and, in Morley’s case, how gently she takes cheese from her mom’s hand. It’s all a part of what makes the dog individual. And as much as I like them to look at the camera, it’s more about capturing them doing their thing - sometimes they’re looking, sometimes not. And sometimes I catch them with their eyes closed… something I can not get enough of.
Pictured also, Apollo, her youngster-of-a-brother who can catch airborne treats all day!
All photos © wendy nesbitt