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Financial strain ‘overwhelmed’ sled-dog firm’s owner

Robert Fawcett, centre, who was accused of killing 56 sled dogs after the 2010 Olympics and pleaded guilty in August to a single count of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, leaves Provincial Court after his sentencing in North Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday November 22, 2012. Fawcett was sentenced to three year's probation and given a $1,500 fine.


When Robert Fawcett was sentenced for the grisly killings of several sled dogs near Whistler, B.C., the court heard not only about the slaughter but also – publicly disclosed for the first time – just how dire the company's finances were at the time of the incident.

In 2009, Outdoor Adventures Whistler – owned by Joey Houssian, son of the Intrawest Corp. founder – took over the dogsled business, previously owned by Howling Dog Tours. Mr. Fawcett had previously been part-owner of Howling Dog Tours.

In August of that year, Mr. Houssian sent Mr. Fawcett, his employee, an e-mail saying he had invested $180,000 in the business since May and could not spend any more. Mr. Houssian said that money was in addition to $500,000 in shareholder loans.

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"I can't sustain this as my other businesses are the ones suffering," he wrote in the e-mail, read during the sentencing hearing by Crown prosecutor Nicole Gregoire. "… For now, an absolute freeze on any spending other than food and the bare minimum labour that is required."

Mr. Houssian said ant future expenses would need to be discussed with him. "I am still very passionate about making this business work, but I am overwhelmed with the financial strain it has put on myself and what I am trying to build," he said.

Mr. Fawcett pleaded guilty late last week to one count of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and was sentenced to $1,725 in fines, three years of probation, and 200 hours of community service. The killings took place in April, 2009.

The remains of 54 dogs were found in a mass grave. The charge against Mr. Fawcett, however, related only to the deaths of nine dogs that suffered and didn't immediately die, since euthanization is legal.

Mr. Houssian has not commented publicly since the sentencing. A spokeswoman said Monday he will not be doing interviews.

In a previous interview with The Globe and Mail – in February, 2011, shortly after news of the killings broke – Mr. Houssian said he did not know the scale of the slaughter, nor the manner in which the dogs were killed.

During the sentencing hearing, Ms. Gregoire read an agreed statement of facts. In it, Mr. Fawcett said he had feared business would be adversely affected by the 2010 Olympics. But when he raised the concern with Mr. Houssian, Mr. Fawcett said he was brushed aside.

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When adoption and relocation efforts failed, and the money had dried up, Mr. Fawcett said, he decided to kill the dogs himself, believing he could do so compassionately. The situation quickly spiralled out of control.

The Crown noted Mr. Houssian declined to be interviewed by RCMP as part of the investigation.

During the sentencing hearing, Ms. Gregoire noted legislative changes were put in place after the killings. The Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulation became law in February, with the last of its standards taking effect in October. The legal standards touch on areas such as health, containment and breeding.

The standards also state that a sled dog cannot be killed until "reasonable efforts" have been made to relocate the dog. A sled-dog operator must also keep records that permit ready identification of each dog.

"If anything positive came out of this whole experience, that would be it," Shawn Eccles, the BC SPCA's manager of cruelty investigations, said of the euthanasia standard.

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