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As sled dogs quietly exhumed, public response is muted

BC SPCA investigators continue to excavate and carry out site mapping prior to the exhumation of what is believed to be the mass grave site of 100 sled dogs near Whistler.

SPCA photo/SPCA photo

Between the idyllic communities of Whistler and Pemberton, after an unmarked turn and not far from a kennel, SPCA officials and forensic experts are excavating a grave believed to hold 70 to 100 sled dogs.

The site, already difficult to reach, is closed to the public. A security guard is stationed a safe distance away to deter the concerned or curious.

The anonymous nature of the excavation, after news of the killings generated headlines around the world, is perhaps fitting. Despite concerns the horrific incident would forever be a black eye for Whistler - a popular tourist destination and co-host of the 2010 Winter Olympics - tourism operators and locals say the case's slow pace has taken it largely out of sight and out of mind.

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Robert Fawcett, the man linked to the cull, told WorkSafeBC he killed at least 70 dogs in April of 2010 after a slow season. The number of dead dogs was later revised to 100.

Mr. Fawcett, who used to run Howling Dog Tours before Outdoor Adventures Whistler took over operational control, told WorkSafeBC about "execution-style killings" in which he wrestled the dogs to the ground and stood on them with one foot to shoot them. Other dogs were stabbed.

Afterward, Mr. Fawcett filed a workers' compensation claim for posttraumatic stress disorder.

News of the killings first broke in late January. Outrage poured in and the RCMP issued multiple warnings against anonymous individuals making death threats against Outdoor Adventures employees. Animal lovers scheduled rallies not only in Whistler, but across B.C.

But the SPCA-led investigation stalled when officials decided to exhume the bodies of the dogs and were forced to wait until the ground thawed. The excavation began late Wednesday and is expected to continue over the next couple of days. The SPCA plans to formally announce its findings when the dig is complete.

As a result, for many Whistler residents, the case has fallen by the wayside. No rallies appear planned to coincide with the exhumation. The RCMP issued a press release earlier this week reminding residents not to let their emotions get the better of them; no new threats have been made.

Paula Del Bosco, executive director of animal shelter Whistler Animals Galore Society (WAG), said she's confident that once the investigation is complete, the emotion sparked by the case will return.

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"I think people are saying we need to find out the facts. At this point in time, so much is based on one person's attempt to get money out of the Workers' Compensation Board," she said.

One sled dog outfit said that while complaints poured in after the killings were made public, no new ones have been received in months, and business toward the end of the season reached normal levels. Tourism Whistler said the number of bookings through its website were consistent with what it's seen in years past.

However, Jordan Tesluk, who organized a Whistler rally after learning of the killings, said he doesn't believe the community will ever shed the black eye it received.

"I think this is going to stick," he said. "Hopefully what that means is that Whistler's going to recognize that stain and they're going to want to be pro-active about … taking some good steps to prevent this in the future."

A number of residents expressed concern about the exhumation - both for its estimated cost of $225,000, and the fact that animals who died such a brutal death won't be allowed to continue resting in peace. The SPCA has said it owes it to the dogs to ensure such a tragic incident is never repeated.

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