Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures owner and operator Eric Marsden pictured in February 2010.

Revelstoke dog-sled tour operator speaks on Whistler slaughter

Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures owner and operator Eric Marsden says he's shocked and upset to hear stories of the horrific slaughter of about 100 sled dogs by a tour operator in Whistler after the 2010 Olympics.



REVELSTOKE, B.C. — Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures owner and operator Eric Marsden says he’s shocked and upset to hear stories of the horrific slaughter of about 100 sled dogs by a tour operator in Whistler after the 2010 Olympics.

The story came to light on Monday, Jan. 31, resulting in an international furore , and the announcement from B.C. premier Gordon Campbell Feb. 2 of a task force to look into the slaughter.

Marsden started his small operation over a year ago, and is based at the Nelles Ranch, a historic property just south of Revelstoke on Highway 23.

In a very candid telephone interview, Marsden laid out his opinions on the dog sled industry, saying there is room for improvement, but emphasizing incidents like the slaughter in Whistler was previously unheard of.

“It’s kind of still shocking to me. I don’t even know how to soak it up because I haven’t seen much of the media myself, but something like that — it’s a terrible black eye on the industry, and I only ask people not to see them as the majority,” Marsden said. We sometimes read about horrific cases of horse abuse, he offers as an example, but the majority of horse owners are responsible and caring.

Marsden says the incident is a huge black eye for those in the dogsledding business, but is quick to distinguish small operations from the larger ones that predominate in major winter tourism hubs.

The “corporate ethics” of big operators in places like Banff and Whistler, says Marsden, is different from the majority in dog sledding, including tour operators and hobbyists.

He says the big-box tour operations are actually a minority amongst dog mushers. “Most guys are just small little ma and pa operations like myself – hobbyists and what not that wouldn’t fathom doing something like that,” he said. “These guys deal with 400 dogs, 500 dogs — just crazy amounts of dogs.”

He has worked for larger operations, he says, but even then he’s never seen or heard of anything coming close to the slaughter in Whistler. “I didn’t even see anything remotely like that,” he said.

Dogs do get put down, but he says it’s similar to putting down the family dog when it gets old and falls ill.

The story so far has focused on the destruction of about 100 dogs in the lull following the 2010 Winter Olympics tourism boom. Marsden points out, however, that if the number of dogs was unsustainable after the Olympics peak, it would also have been an unsustainable number before the peak. Did tour operators pump up the number of dogs to meet the Olympics peak? Wouldn’t they then understand the ramifications of that decision down the road?

There’s a relatively small mushing community in B.C., but Marsden said there was no word of the April, 2010 slaughter circulating amongst them. “No murmurings at all,” he said.

On Feb. 2, premier Campbell appointed North Thompson MLA Dr. Terry Lake to head a task force to review the reported killing “and make recommendations to prevent such an incident from occurring again.” The task force will include representation from the BCSPCA and the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

“The tragic and disturbing details that have emerged around how these dogs were inhumanely treated are not acceptable to British Columbians or to their government,” premier Campbell said. “No creature should ever have to suffer in the manner that has been reported, and we want to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again in our province.”

The announcement of the task force came two days after media began reporting that up to 100 dogs were allegedly killed in an inhumane manner by an employee of a Whistler dog-sledding company.

“As a veterinarian, I was shocked and saddened by the description of the terrible treatment these dogs were reported to have been subjected to,” said task force leader Dr. Lake. “We will undertake a thorough, detailed examination of the circumstances surrounding this case to ensure we take all steps necessary to ensure dogs in the dog-sledding industry are treated humanely.”

In addition to an extensive investigation into the specifics of the incident in Whistler, the task force will, “also examine the regulation and oversight of the dog sledding industry. The review will establish the circumstances surrounding this incident and provide appropriate recommendations,” states a joint media release from the premier’s office and the agriculture ministry.

Back in Revelstoke, Marsden feels that regulation could work, but he’s worried if they’re done wrong they could make the situation worse. Mushing is a fringe activity, especially amongst the hobbyists and small operators. Over-regulation, or regulations designed for large tour companies could drive some smaller operators underground or out of business.

Marsden concedes the writing on the wall points to increased legislation, and says the oversight can help. He points out the now infamous slaughter likely wouldn’t have come to light if it wasn’t for the fact that the person alleged to have carried it out hadn’t filed a compensation claim. A report leaked to the media shows the man alleged to have killed the dogs subsequently filed a claim for compensation with the Workplace Compensation Board of British Columbia, claiming he suffered stress as a result of performing the slaughter for his employer. The employer disputes the claim.

Marsden also adds that there are also poor practices amongst smaller operators. Many treat the dogs “like little legends” he says, “others won’t.” He adds the same goes for mushers not involved at all in the tourist side of the business. “Some of those guys will treat them like rock stars, and some of them will treat them like tools, so to speak. Tools in a shed.”

Marsden hopes people will learn lessons from the tragedy and the resulting international furore that followed. In particular, he hopes consumers will now be more ethically aware when considering a dog-sled tour. He asks them to keep their eyes open and think about what they’re supporting with their dollars.

He welcomes anyone to come visit his operation and view his kennels and dogs, just make an appointment first. His contact info is available at www.revelstokedogsledadventures.ca.

Marsden told the Times Review the SPCA hasn’t ever been to visit or inspect his kennels.

“I’ve never had any complaints,” he says, adding he has many positive testimonials from customers and his peers, saying his conscience and record are clean.

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As reported in the the Feb. 2, 2011 issue of the Times Review, Marsden is one of two keynote presenters at an North Columbia Environmental Society event at the Big Eddy Pub this Saturday, Feb. 5. For his part of the presentation, Marsden has been preparing a humorous video that explores “dog-skiing” as a non-motorized form of backcountry skiing – as opposed to cat-skiing. He tells me he was up in the Greeley area on Feb. 3 leading his team up a hill to access some backcountry riding.

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The Revelstoke Times Review visited Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures at the Nelles Ranch in February, 2010 for a business feature story. Here’s the story that appeared in the Feb. 10, 2010 issue:

Musher pursues dogsledding passion

By Aaron Orlando, Revelstoke Times Review

After a hiatus of some years, working animals have returned to Nelles Ranch, the rustic landmark farm at the side of Highway 23 just south of Revelstoke.

Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures owner Eric Marsden leads me back to a nest of about a dozen kennels near the back of the farm early on a recent Sunday morning.

Spaced so the dogs can interact with each other, a wide variety of breeds of dogs emerge from the kennels and start building a crescendo of excitement that finally peaks about 45 minutes later when they are harnessed and given the go ahead to pull.

Marsden introduces me to his dogs by name, letting me know who is a star, who is up and coming, as which ones are bench warmers. Modern racing dogs aren’t the pure-bred Huskies from the movies and are usually cross breeds. The dogs are friendly, but they aren’t trained for social graces. They jump up and box you in the chest in excitement. Marsden says that walks on the leash don’t work well, since the dogs pull the whole way.

At just over 30, Marsden’s resume boasts a long, varied list of life experiences that could stack up against any of the typical tree-planter/skier.

He’s done tree planting and forest fire fighting. “Other people pay for their ski vacation,” he says. “I have to pay for my dogs.”

The native of Wonowon, B.C. has worked in tourism as a hiking, rafting and dogsledding guide. He’s also travelled extensively to work in conservation biology, focusing particularly on ornithology. He’s worked and volunteered on studies in countries including Germany, Iran, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Malaysia. As we drive near the Illecillewaet River, Marsden’s eyes light up with excitement as he points out an American Dipper fishing on the bank. It’s one of the few birds to winter-over here, explains Marsden, adding that the birds have a nicitating membrane that protects their eyes when they stick them into the icy water to hunt.

It was precisely all these years of rambling about and working for others that prompted him to open Revelstoke’s only dogsled tour company. “I figured I’d take my stab at life,” he says. “I just figured I wanted to do my own thing.” He decided to pursue his passion for dogsledding, saying that Revelstoke looked like a good market to get into.

Although it is a business, Marsden says that he hopes to cover his costs at best, allowing him to keep and train his dogs so he can pursue his passion and also enter into races.

After loading up the dogs into custom-made compartments in the back of his truck, we head up to a forest service road in the Greeley area. He can lead tours in a few areas around Revelstoke, and is looking to expand in the coming seasons, adding it’s about taking time and building relationships first. Currently, he grooms the trail for the sleds, and also uses it for summer training.

As I help Marsden hook up the dogs, I learn that their pulling power is no joke, as I struggle slightly to keep even a couple of them in a straight line as the others get harnessed.

And after a few minutes, we’re off. The pace is slightly frantic at first, but after a minute or two, you can start to feel the organic nature of the team’s power. A steady hail of corn snow rains back onto us.

They wane on hills, and a couple of the dogs were unexpectedly slacking that day, he says.

Marsden and I try co-piloting the sled, but a weight imbalance soon gets us into trouble. I do what some bikers refer to as the “dead sailor” — freezing up and hanging onto the bars mid-air, even when you’re going to wreck for sure. The snow is forgiving, so the resulting crash is no worse than a mild skiing wipe-out. Marsden manages to hang on to the sled, saving us a long walk back. When the dogs get going, they don’t look back.

After a bit I get a chance to drive the sled – or at least stand in the driver’s spot – as Marsden continues to coax and drive the dogs along.

Before I know it, five kilometres has come and gone. Marsden feeds the dogs a watery slurry to help cool them down, and then takes the time to thank them individually before he packs up.

Bookings can be made directly through Marsden’s website at www.revelstokedogsledadventures.ca, or through Revelstoke Mountain Resort or the Powder Springs Inn.