Arctic Sled Dogs

WINTERFELL

I recently traveled to arctic Canada. Although  most of my time was spent in the tundra trying to find polar bears, one of my most poignant experiences came in the town of Churchill, Manitoba (population: 800).

Churchill is a mix of the Game of Thrones kingdom in the north and a John Wayne western film. The town feels like an old frontier outpost, filled with pioneers ready to take on the great forces of nature. Churchill was our jumping off point to the remote arctic, and so we spent several hours there on either side of our arctic adventure.

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A Necessary Digression: Survival Mentality

I was lucky to sit alongside a Canadian school-teacher flying from Winnipeg to Churchill. She taught me much about “the north”, including how the people who inhabit these remote parts manage to have modern amenities like cars, toasters, and vegetables. Each summer a barge makes its way through the melted Hudson Bay filled to the brim with supplies  destined for Churchill and other northern communities only accessible through the Northwestern Passages. The barge is sunk and frozen beneath the ice until the ice melts the following summer.

After the barge has set sail, the only other option to obtain supplies in the Northern Territories is prohibitively expensive via air transport. To supplement, the Inuit and other Northern Territory Residents hunt and fish as a means of survival*. They use all parts of the animals they kill, skins, bones, flesh – everything. As a vegan, it was difficult to see the animal skins everywhere in town – arctic fox shrugs, wolf covered chairs, arctic rabbit fur on all manner of items, polar bear rugs. Although it was personally troublesome to see these things, I was able to respect that in such a remote place the people are forced to live off the land much as we used to do as an entire human population of hunter-gatherers**.

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MODERN DAY SLAVES

One of the guides that escorted us for the week in the remote arctic was a Churchill resident who operated a sled-dog business to supplement his guiding income. On our return layover in Churchill we had time to kill and he thought we would enjoy meeting his sled-dogs.

To call the experience joyous or fun could not be further from the truth. Quite the contrary, seeing these beautiful dogs living in such extremely harsh conditions with no love or companionship was a painful sight to behold. Meeting the dogs  was much more distressing than seeing the animal skins all over Churchill, primarily because dog-sledding is a completely unnecessary activity and is not vital to survival in the north. It is a less effective means of transportation than a snowmobile, costs more to operate than a snowmobile, and solely exists for the tourists’ desire to have a “genuine” arctic experience***.

These dogs’ sole purpose was to toil in the tundra pulling sleds full of tourists for the profit of their owner. Their work did not improve their own quality of life, rather, the treatment they received was commensurate with their role as chattel laborers, working only for the meager food and insufficient shelter they receive.

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Work For Food

In exchange for their servitude, the dogs are fed three times a week during the relatively warm months and four times a week during the sub-zero (Fahrenheit) months. Their bodies burn more energy to stay warm when it is sub-zero, which is the only reason they receive more food  during that time – it is not due to any humane sentiments for their quality of life.

Their owner explained that he generally hunts seals to feed his dogs, as that is much cheaper than buying chicken. A week’s supply of chicken costs him $1,500 Canadian Dollars, which he explained seriously cuts into his bottom line. So, in addition to enslaving these poor dogs, he is depleting the seal population that the polar bears need in order to survive in their natural habitat.

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Stone Cold Shelter

Each dog was staked to the ground with a heavy metal chain. The chains were only long enough to allow each dog to enter his or her dilapidated shelter, no further.  The shelter consisted of a wooden box with a gaping hole for the dog to enter through. Temperatures in Churchill are routinely below -40 Fahrenheit****. There was no hay inside, no blankets, not one bit of comfort for their tired bones.

The chains were also staked in such a way to ensure that the dogs could not  make contact with one another. They were prevented from finding comfort  and friendship in each other or cuddling to create body-heat. This purposeful design was implemented to prevent the dogs from “damaging” each other in play fighting, or real aggression. Given the stressful conditions they live under I would not be surprised if they displayed aggression as a coping mechanism.

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The Rainbow Bridge

It was obvious to me that one of the eighteen dogs was significantly older than all the rest, just looking at him I could not imagine he was capable of work. His name was Sylvester*****. I inquired into Sylvester’s story and was told by our guide that Sylvester was, “the only dog I ever loved. I’m going to let him live out his life and give him a good death.”

Which begged the question what a bad death consisted of? After further questioning I uncovered that it costs about $1,200 Canadian Dollars to euthanize a dog in Churchill due to it’s remote location and lack of veterinary care. He admitted the rest of the dogs receive a “quick and painless”,  bullet to the brain when they are no longer young and strong enough to work for him. It is economically impossible to care for them into their old age and still carry on the sledding business, so, they are unfortunate collateral damage of tourists’ wanton desires.

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Adopt Don’t Shop

I was horrified to discover that after these beautiful and loving dogs had given him their best years, working in impossibly harsh conditions, his showing of gratitude was a shot in the head when they were no longer “profitable”.

I couldn’t accept this truth and furiously tried to find another way that maybe he hadn’t considered. It was evidence to me that animal rights were not a top of mind issue in Churchill, so, maybe I could help him find forever homes for the seniors in Winnipeg – just a 2 hour flight away.

He explained that he would love to do that for his dogs, but cost was the impediment. Transporting a dog down to Winnipeg would be too expensive. Even if he was willing to take on that cost, he felt finding a home for a senior dog who had never been socialized or trained to live in the comforts of a home would be extremely difficult.

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Perspective: Polar Bear Food

Unbelievably, our guide was extremely proud of his sledding operation and did not seem to feel any shame about any of my questions into his practices. He felt he was justified in treating the dogs as a commodity that serve a purpose, as that is the culture in the arctic. In fact, he felt righteous that he took extraordinarily good care of his dogs and looked down upon other dog-sled operators in town who don’t have fences to protect their dogs from the polar bears who regularly visit Churchill. In his eyes, protecting his dogs from becoming a polar bear meal was the pinnacle of humane treatment.

I was incredulous that he could possibly believe that he was doing right by these majestic animals. Simply protecting them from an apex predator does not constitute anywhere near the bare minimum level of care that they deserve. However, his perception that the shabby fence was somehow something more demonstrated the power of perspective. In his world, which is dominated by survival concerns his behavior is kind and compassionate. From my vantage point he is a slave-master of the worst kind: one immersed in self-justifying denial of reality. He has rationalized his way into believing that he treats his dogs well.

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THE BOTTOM LINE

As with most things in this world, humans’ treatment of animals usually comes down to money – the bottom line. If a business is profitable when it provides proper care and consideration for an animal who is being used in industry, the proprietor will almost always begin to see that the business will be more profitable without providing for that level of care. Since animals have no voice or mechanism to speak up for their most basic needs – these measures of care and consideration are the first budget cuts made by even the most well-intentioned business owner.

As a global community our bottom line needs to be doing the right thing with our dollars. As globetrotters we must consider what goes on behind the scenes to create these romanticized experiences that we crave? We must ask how do the sled-dogs live before they come pick me up at my inn? How did the elephant come to allow me to ride on his back? Why does this lion/tiger/bear allow me to take a selfie with it?

Conscientious spending is the only way to direct social change as it relates to animal rights, for industries dependent on animals only exist due to demand for them.  Our guide would not have bred and kept those sled-dogs if they did not serve a purpose – to serve up a piece of the past to tourists wanting to imagine they live in a world that no longer exists.

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*I also saw one small greenhouse in Churchill that supplies fresh vegetables during the colder months to the residents.

**I have not investigated the manner in which these furs were obtained, however, several locals explained that the furs were byproducts of local Inuit and resident hunts. If the furs were coming from fur farms my respect for the survival aspect would completely vanish.

***The irony is that people who actually live in the arctic use snowmobiles to get around.

****-40 degrees happens to be the temperature when both Fahrenheit and Celsius scales are the same, meaning that -40 Fahrenheit is also -40 Celsius.

***** The dog’s name has been changed to protect the identity of our guide and not breach any confidentiality.

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