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SPCA gets access to workers' compensation files in dog cull case

A sled dog peers out of a window in a truck kennel on its way to do tours for Whistler Outdoor Adventures near Whistler, January 31, 2011.

BONNY MAKAREWICZ/bonny makarewicz The Globe and Mail.

British Columbia's workers' compensation board must give the SPCA documents related to the slaughter of as many as 100 sled dogs in Whistler last year, a provincial court judge ruled Monday.

The SPCA is leading the investigation into the slaughter, which came to light after a decision awarding a worker financial compensation for post-traumatic stress was leaked to the media.

The worker detailed a gruesome scene in which he claimed to have killed between 70 and 100 dogs last April, shooting them or slitting their throats before dumping them in a mass grave. The worker alleged he was pressured to cull the herd after business slumped following the 2010 Winter Olympics - something parent company Outdoor Adventures insists is not true.

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The SPCA sought a court-order for WorkSafe BC's file on the case, but the board challenged that request in court, arguing disclosing the documents would violate the worker's privacy rights and discourage others from coming forward if they feared prosecution.

A provincial court judge rejected those arguments, concluding the public interest in ensuring a full investigation outweighs any privacy concerns, and noting the documents themselves may not be inadmissible in court, anyway.

Still, Judge Joanne Challenger limited the production order to only include information related specifically to the dog cull, including statements from the worker, his employer and any witnesses.

"At this stage, the court is asked to release documents to assist in an investigation and not to rule on whether those documents are admissible to prove the guilt of a worker in any subsequent proceeding," wrote Judge Challenger.

"In my view, the public interest in having this potential criminal offence investigated outweighs the public interest in maintaining confidentiality over the information provided by the worker involved," she added later.

The SPCA did not request medical records related to the file, so they won't be part of the package that is eventually released.

The SPCA's lawyer, Chris Rhone, said the animal-welfare agency believes the documents will help them piece together what happened and identify witnesses that need to be interviewed.

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"There was that leaked decision and it quoted at length from a statutory declaration that the worker had made," Rhone said in an interview.

"Of course, that decision didn't contain any names, so common sense would indicate that looking at that statutory declaration could further the investigation."

The case has prompted international headlines, and, at times, vitriolic public outrage that has boiled over into death threats. The RCMP have launched a separate investigation looking at those threats.

The dogs were owned and cared for by Howling Dog Tours, which provided tours for Whistler-based Outdoor Adventures.

Outdoor Adventures had a financial stake in the company, but says it didn't control Howling Dog's operations at the time of the cull. Outdoor Adventures did take full control of Howling Dog Tours in May 2010 - the month following the cull.

Outdoor Adventures has also insisted it had nothing to do with the decision to cull the dogs, and said Howling Dog general manager Robert Fawcett informed the company that about 50 animals needed to be euthanized because they were too old and sick to be adopted.

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The company has rejected any suggestion that the slaughter was related to the Olympics or a decline in business.

In the meantime, Howling Dog's operations have been suspended indefinitely until the various investigations are complete, and Outdoor Adventures is not currently offering dogsledding tours.

The provincial government has also launched a task force to review what happened and examine whether changes are needed to regulate the dogsledding industry. The group is expected to prepare its report next month.

The Canadian Press

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