Sled dog killer Robert Fawcett avoids jail; animal welfare advocates enraged

It seems like if anyone deserved to have the book thrown at them in an animal-cruelty case it was Robert Fawcett.

The man who slaughtered about 100 sled dogs after they were no longer needed following the 2010 Vancouver Olympics tourist crush did not get the jail time many people expected when he was sentenced in a North Vancouver provincial court Thursday.

Instead, he received probation, a fine and a ban on owning animals, the Vancouver Province reported. Animal-welfare advocates are furious.

Fawcett had a legal right cull the dogs after business at Whistler, B.C.-based Howling Dog Tours, where he was employed, dropped off. But the way he did it shocked Canadians.

The court heard Fawcett shot the dogs or slit their throats over a period of two days and tossed the bodies into a mass grave on the kennel property. Some took a while to die.

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The case came to light in January 2011 after Fawcett made worker's compensation claim to WorkSafeBC for post-traumatic stress disorder. He was charged last April and pleaded guilty in August to causing unnecessary pain and suffering to nine of the dogs after dozens were exhumed for examination.

Gruesome evidence of the killings was read out in court from an agreed statement of facts to shocked, tearful spectators, the Globe an Mail reported.

He described killing one husky named Suzie, mother of his family pet Bumble. When the first shot from his gun badly wounded the dog, Fawcett said he had to use a rifle with a telescopic sight to finish it off. Another dog attacked him when he went to get the body.

In other cases, he wrestled dogs to the ground, pinned them with one foot and tried to shoot them. One dog that he tossed into the burial pit turned out to be still alive and he had to climb into the grave to finish it off, the Globe reported.

Fawcett claimed he'd felt pressured to perform the killings by the tour company's owner after attempts to find other homes for the dogs had failed, the Globe said. Fawcett's lawyer said his client still has nightmares and suicidal thoughts.

Judge Steve Merrick, following recommendations made by the Crown prosecutor, sentenced Fawcett to three years probation, 200 hours of community service, a $1,725 fine, a three-year ban on commercial involvement with animals and a 10-year firearms ownership prohibition.

The maximum sentence under the Criminal Code's animal-cruelty section and B.C. legislation is five years in prison and up to $75,000 in fines.

Merrick accepted that Fawcett thought he was doing the right thing and agreed with a psychiatric assessment that his actions were the result of mental instability, the Province reported. But the judge added Fawcett "ought to have anticipated the possibility of the horrific circumstances that could result."

Defence lawyer Greg Diamond also noted Fawcett had become and "international pariah" and received death threats, sending his wife and children into hiding at one point.

Regardless of Fawcett's personal anguish over the dog massacre, SPCA investigators were appalled by the sentence.

Fawcett "basically walked away, and he was paid taxpayer dollars in compensation for committing the crime," Marcie Moriarty, SPCA general manager of cruelty investigations, told the Province.

British Columbia has adequate laws governing animal cruelty, she said, and the SPCA did its job in this case but "the courts did not."

"We put forward strong evidence that animals suffered, and that this occurred over a few days," Moriarty said. "When you look at other animal-cruelty cases in Canada … I think the sentence here is not reflective of what Canadians feel."

The fact Fawcett was not banned for life from owning or caring for animals "just is staggering," Moriarty told CBC News.

Crown spokesman Neil Mackenzie defended the sentence. Fawcett had indeed become demonized worldwide, he said, and despite the high number of dogs that were killed, necropsies turned up evidence of cruelty in only nine of them.

"Clearly it (worldwide publicity) has had some effect on the public perception of the case and as I said from the outset, it's important to understand that Mr. Fawcett is on trial not because the killing of the dogs was unlawful but the killing of the dogs was done in a manner that was unlawful," said Mackenzie, according to CBC News.

[ Related: Dog's overheating death puts spotlight on Canada's animal cruelty laws ]

So is this a just decision, another example of the weakness of Canada's laws protecting animals or a failure of the courts to take the issue seriously?

The core of the Criminal Code sections governing animal cruelty dates from 1892 and groups like the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies have been pushing for years to update the law to reflect 21st-century values. Several attempts were made in the last decade but a bill that passed in 2008 boosting sentences but making no changes to the kinds of offences the law covered was condemned as in adequate by animal-welfare groups.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund's latest annual report on animal-protection laws noted British Columbia ranks No. 2 behind Manitoba and ahead of Ontario, with heavier fines and jail terms, plus wider range of prohibitions on the treatment of animals.

The stronger B.C. laws stemmed in part from the mass husky killing, Moriarty said.

"This case and the investigation for the B.C. SPCA were about affecting change and there has been legislative change," she told CBC News. "There has been incredible new regulation of an industry, which I know has affected sled dogs and welfare in the future."

So perhaps the problem is not with the law, but with its enforcement.