Filmmakers allege cruelty, abuse at Ontario sled dog kennels

By Cristina Howorun

It’s a disturbing video that went viral — dogs, allegedly chained and tethered, surrounded by what could be their own waste. At least one dog is visibly limping with what appears to be an untreated wound.

Captured by a Toronto-area couple and posted on Facebook after they visited the Windrift dog sled kennel north of Barrie, it drew considerable concern. So much so, that Toronto Adventures, which worked with Windrift to offer the dog sledding experience, has severed their ties with the company.

CityNews attempted to see the grounds and conditions of the dogs earlier this week, but were not allowed on the sprawling grounds, which, according to the Town of Oro-Medonte, house 110 dogs.

Staff at the facility called the police when a reporter and cameraman inadvertently crossed on to their grounds while following the sounds of howling dogs.

But Arnie Zipusky, who produced a documentary on the sled dogs, was there with his cameras very recently and described what he saw.

“We filmed puppies being trained to pull a sled. So what they do is, from a very young age, from six months, they start pulling the dog and they put a chain around the dog’s neck so they can pull weight and they are really too young and physiologically they are really too young to pull a weight.”

The movie Sled Dogs, which airs on March 7 on the Documentary Channel, shows this heartbreaking scene.

He and his wife, Fern Levitt, were so disturbed by the practices they witnessed at Windrift and several other Ontario kennels that they reported their findings, with pictures, to the OSPCA as recently as September.

Emails obtained by CityNews show that at least one officer was aware of the allegations of confined spaces, unsanitary conditions, and potential neglect, but it’s not known if the officer attended the property.

OSPCA spokesperson Melissa Kosowan wouldn’t tell CityNews if the owners have been charged in the past or had orders issued against them, only that they haven’t been convicted of an offence.

“We have the capacity to address concerns about working dog operations, such as the sled dog operator in question. We do not, however, divulge the results of past investigation,” she wrote in a statement to CityNews.

According to several viewers who wrote to CityNews after attending Windrift for sled runs, and Zipursky and Levitt, the dogs at the kennel are kept tethered and chained unless they are pulling sleds, or learning to pull them.

The spaces are just a few meters long — something that’s evident throughout the documentary — and their waste is often next to where they eat and sleep. Their chains prevent them from reaching each other.

“They can’t form proper packs,” Levitt tells CityNews.

“There’s a myth in the mushing community that they’ve spread that these dogs, sled dogs are different than other dogs. That they are born to run, bred to do this, it’s absolutely untrue. They are not born to live their life out on a chain 24-7, they are not born to be tethered,” Zipursky says.

The practice is legal.

“It’s legal here in Ontario and everywhere else in North America. It’s also legal to kill your dogs,” she added.

Although the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has condemned the use of tethers as a primary form of confinement, there is no law prohibiting their use.

We asked the Minister of Community Safety, Marie France Lalonde, if she plans on introducing best practices for kennels, but she didn’t address our question.

Instead, in a statement she wrote that is “concerned about the images shown this week” and that they are “currently reviewing the existing model to ensure we continue improving and protecting our animals from abuse and mistreatment …”

The OSCPA is currently investigating Windrift.

In the wake of the controversy, several petitions have launched demanding better treatment for animals. Animal Justice is demanding a ban to outdoor dog chaining

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