When are animal rides cruel?
Last month, I had the opportunity to go dog sledding in Whistler, Canada, with my boyfriend Andrew. I was excited, but tentative. There's a certain childish appeal to animal rides, and I love dogs. But I’d heard mixed reviews on the subject. Some people said it was cruel to the dogs. How do you know?
In some cases, it's a no-brainer.
I remember my first sheep ride like it was 18 years ago.
Like most young girls, I was afflicted with the curse of horse-lust. I was born in the thick of the 80’s My Little Pony craze. As a young girl, I joined the throngs of wide-eyed gremlins clutching rainbow-colored rubber horses with heart freckled rumps. All I wanted was my own little real pony.
When my family moved to a farm, my siblings and I barraged my parents with the ineluctable question.
"Can we get a horse? Pleeeeeeeeassee???"
“Horses don’t bring in money,” my parents said, “Goats give us milk. Sheep give meat and wool. Horses don’t provide income.”
My brother Dan and I were not to be dissuaded from our burning need to ride something. We were all about improvising. Pearl was a strong, stocky Suffolk sheep. If you squinted your eyes halfway, her inky black face almost resembled the majestic Black Beauty. A Black Beauty with an oversized, white, wooly saddle. The perfect solution to our horse-lust woes.
Dan and I approached our newly appointed trusty steed, armed with a handful of her favorite treats. I clenched and unclenched my free hand behind my back while she slurped up the grain from my outstretched left hand.
In one swift move, I wrapped my scrawny legs and arms around her woolly back like an octopus attacking a cottonball.
3, 2, 1...
My brother started to say something, but his words were drowned by the pounding of hooves against the ground. Pearl launched us into the air at rocket speed.
“Hah gahhhhhhh teem!” called my brother after me.
In my nine-year-old memory, it was an eternity of rushing air and thudding hooves. The lanolin coated my already sweaty palms and I struggled to keep myself from slipping under her thudding hooves.
In reality, it was actually probably only about 6.2 seconds before Pearl put things to an end. She pulled a fast tight turn into the fence, slammed her side against the panels and sent me flying into the alfalfa.
“No thanks!” I thought I heard her mutter under her breath as she trotted away indignantly.
For Pearl, it was obvious she didn't enjoy our little rodeo. She gave me dirty looks for two weeks straight.
But for dog sledding, it wasn't quite as straightforward.
Whistler dog sledding got a bad rap after a mass killing of 56 sled dogs went public. Many claimed this cruel act exemplified the horrors of dog sledding. Conditions of the working animals were brought into question. And a slew of articles advocated banning dog sledding altogether.
But other sled dog owners spoke out against the occurrence, upset to be grouped with the event. Did the actions of one cruel man justify placing all dog sledding companies into the same group?
Dog sledding has a rich history in Northern America transportation. The story of Balto tells the tale of the heroic sled dog that saved a village by delivering medicine to a village when other transportation methods failed. In today's modern society, however, dog sledding is primarily recreational. Using a dog sled to save a village of people seems a little more justified. The topic begs the question: "When is it ethical to use animals for rides?"
In this case, it may be something that can only be decided on a case by case basis. In this case, my tour was set up through Canadian Wilderness Adventures. They contract through Trappers Run, a kennel run by Jamie Hargreaves. Jamie is an advocate for ethical dog sledding. I can't speak for other dog sledding groups. But a few things stood out to me about this particular group of dogs and mushers.
The biggest thing I noticed was a respectful relationship between the handlers and the dogs. Around these parts, Jamie is known as the “dog whisperer.” Rumor has it she can silence sixty barking dogs with one word. But the effect doesn’t appear to stem from fear. Jamie’s dogs wag their tails and perk their ears forward when they see her approaching. When she lets a couple dogs out, they rush to cover her in kisses.
I don’t speak dog-ese, but the dogs seem to hold Jamie in high regard. And the respect is mutual. Jamie can't say enough good things about her dogs.
“People say I’m so incredible with dogs, but to be honest it’s the dogs that teach the dogs. I just facilitate the process.” Jamie says.
It’s a process that she calls Can-ology, much like sociology.
“We work on dog’s personal confidence. We want them to be a part of something, and they all come together for a common goal.”
Her mushers share these sentiments. To start our tour, we met up with Addison, our musher for the day. Addison's team of dogs for the day approach him with a full on body hugs and soft nuzzles. Like Jamie, he knows every single dog's name. The best part, he says, is when the dogs learn your voice and start to respond. It's a group effort, and there's something special about that feeling of belonging to the team.
At this kennel, quality of life seemed high. The mushers knew each little nuance about each dog -- who needed what, and when. Some of the dogs had blankets to keep them warm while they waited outside. Another wore booties because her paws were more sensitive.
When they aren't working, the dogs are kept in kennels. During the summer, Jamie says they’re allowed to run free on the expansive property.
The kennel grounds were a frenzy of barking as we approached. The dogs who were set to pull waited on tethers near the sled. They jumped up and down, barking eagerly. Addison introduced us to each of the dogs, and then let us help him hook them up. Some of the dogs practically dragged us to line to be hooked up.
Once they were hooked to the sled, the real racket began. The dogs leapt forward in their harnesses. You could almost hear them yelling eagerly:
“Aww yeah! Let’s go!”
Addison gave the command, and the dogs tore down the trail like a pack of kids that had just spotted a blowup bouncy house on the distant horizon.
As we went up the hills, Addison stepped off to help push the sled up. On the way down, he applied a break to keep the sled from gaining too much momentum and careening into the dogs.
Every fifteen minutes we took a break. Addison explained that running makes them have to poop. After they relieved themselves, the dogs dove headfirst into the snow, rolling and shaking.
Once the pack had cooled down, they began leaping in their harness, eager to run again.
“Let’s get this show on the road!”
We pulled back into home base a couple hours later. The dogs lapped at a high-calorie soup while we passed out treats to reward them for a job well done.
The change in behavior was remarkable. Dogs that were rioting just a few hours ago now lied down, content and calm. Can they invent some form of dog sledding for hyper energetic children bouncing off the walls?
For some of the more energetic dogs, Addison said they would get to run one more time later that day. For other dogs, once was enough.
For these dogs, they seem to be enjoying their lives. They’re happy, they’re having fun, and they enjoy being part of a team.
But what happens afterwards? Will their careers as a sled dog ruin their chances at a happy life after they can no longer pull?
At Jamie’s kennel, her dogs aren’t all just the traditional Huskies. Her team is a diverse assortment from a variety of backgrounds. The majority of these dogs came to her as rescue dogs. And Jamie has no intent on sending them back to the lives they escaped.
It’s why she adopts her dogs out early. While most are happy to work up to 13 years, she works with an adoption agency to find them homes long before then. That way the dogs have more time to bond and enjoy quality time with their adoptees after their sledding years.
As happy as they seemed to me, I wondered- how do you really know if a dog enjoys pulling sleds? “No dog is here if they don’t want to be here.” said Jamie. “If they’re not enjoying their days and it doesn’t seem to work for them we adjust and we find new homes for them.”
For Jamie, reading dogs is like reading humans.
“You have to know your animals and know what they’re feeling." she said. "Certain dogs are more sensitive and need more attention; other dogs need a lot of positive reinforcement. Every dog, like humans, has different needs. And if you know that animal, you know if it’s going to be happy or not. You just know.”
Jamie smiles and nods in the direction of her tail-wagging clan.
“It’s the connection with them.”
Personally, I'd never try to ride a sheep again. But dog sledding? If the kennel is anything like Jamie's, I would definitely give it another go.