Mass dog killing haunts man, community

Editor's note: Some descriptions of events in the following story are graphic in nature and may be disturbing to readers.

HISTLER, British Columbia -- It was one thing to read about the mass grave, to cringe while imagining the 100 or so dogs that had been executed, to grow nauseated thinking about a wounded dog tossed into the pit, left for dead but clawing at the dirt, hopelessly trying to escape. These were the haunting images that clung to Marcie Moriarty.

But they were nothing like the smell. It just attached itself and wouldn't let go; the smell not simply of death, but of rotting death -- painful, bloody, rotting death.

"It was unbearable, absolutely unbearable," says Moriarty, the general manager of cruelty investigations for the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA).

Moriarty and some two dozen investigators, engineers, constables and forensic anthropologists convened in early May to unearth the mysteries behind an incident that had sparked shock and outrage throughout western Canada and beyond.

Four months earlier, Moriarty had been staring in disbelief at her computer, reading a government document that described in far-too-graphic detail how the general manager of a financially strapped sled dog touring company killed as many as 100 of his dogs: had to perform what he described as execution-style killings, where he wrestled the dogs to the ground and stood on them with one foot to shoot them. … he grazed an uncooperative male, taking off part of its head. … had to kill the dog with his knife, by slitting its throat while the dog was on top of him. … his memory of the final 15 dogs is fuzzy. … in some cases, it was easier to get behind the dogs and slit their throats and let them bleed out.

Now, though, the snow having thawed, Moriarty was at the gravesite, overseeing a criminal investigation, and it was all too real -- the mass grave, the excavation of the dead dogs, and the smell that just wouldn't wash off.

"It's definitely a distinct smell, and it was everywhere on the site," Moriarty says. "… I sit behind a desk most of the time, and I'm glad I sit behind a desk most of the time. Our constables, you know -- to be knee-deep in this is something that they'll never forget."

In all, the dig revealed 56 dead dogs. The investigation is ongoing, and Moriarty said Friday that the BCSPCA will submit a recommendation of charges to Canadian authorities at the end of August.

"I would like to see the person or persons responsible held accountable for their actions," Moriarty says.

he sled dog is beloved in Canadian history and folklore. In May, the country issued a stamp commemorating mail delivery by sled dogs over the Gold Rush Trail.

And every winter, adventure companies carry tourists on enthralling sled rides, the visitors hauled for miles by dogs that were born to run.

It is in this context that one begins to see how Bob Fawcett became utterly reviled, a man with no redeeming qualities, a man who should be killed. The death threats came to him, they came to his family, they came to the company he worked for.

It was Fawcett, 38, the general manager of Howling Dogs Tours of Whistler, who killed all those dogs, and there could be no coming back from that. No coming back from the details that were revealed in a workers' compensation insurance claim; a claim filed by Fawcett himself, in which he stated that the execution of all those dogs over a two-day period in April 2010 had left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What nerve, Moriarty thought.

"It baffled my mind that somebody could actually get compensation through a taxpayer-driven organization for possibly committing a criminal code offense," she says.

Really, though, it was the vivid descriptions provided by Fawcett that had pushed people over the edge. The dogs were experiencing anxiety and stress from observing the euthanasia of other members of the pack and were panicking. … He had to chase Suzie through the yard because the horrific noise she made when wounded caused him to drop her leash. … Although she had the left side of her cheek blown off and her eye hanging out, he was unable to catch her. … Poker was covered in blood from a neck wound and covered in his own feces. … The dogs were so panicked they were biting him. … a guttural sound he had never heard before from the dogs and fear in their eyes.

When the story went public in January, the hatred poured out. On television and in the newspapers. On Facebook and on YouTube. Fawcett was an instant pariah. And, of course, given the outrage and threats, Fawcett had no inclination to show himself and be heard. What could he say?

However, a full reading of the workers' compensation report, his postings on PTSD websites and the account of a person Fawcett confided in suggested a more nuanced picture -- of a broken man who believed he was tasked by the owner of his company with an inconceivable decision: Reduce the 300-plus dog kennel by half, or see the business go under and the entire herd lost.

"It was nearly an impossible choice," says a woman whom Fawcett has confided in about his experience. Without Fawcett's knowledge, the woman agreed to speak with "Outside the Lines" on the condition she not be identified. She is the first person to provide a window into Fawcett's mindset.

Fawcett was in the sled dog business for about 15 years, and he had been the owner of Howling Dogs Tours of Whistler until about two years ago, when, he wrote, the economic downturn forced him to sell to a corporation, Outdoor Adventures.

"They did nothing but complain about costs and were not willing to sell some of the herd because they wanted all the animals on deck 'in case' it was busy," Fawcett posted on a PTSD message board. Fawcett wrote that most of the dogs had been raised by him and his family, including his two children, who were 7 and 11.

One former employee told "Outside the Lines" that Fawcett initially demonstrated a passion and a connection with all of his dogs, but as he tried to expand the business, he spread himself too thin and lost touch with why he got into mushing. Eventually, the source said, Fawcett seemed to become obsessed with having the biggest and the best operation in North America, and he came to view the dogs as more like cattle.

By 2009, the company had more than 300 dogs -- more than twice the number of other companies. Fawcett's confidante says that 2010 had become a make-or-break year for the business, and that Fawcett and his boss, owner Joey Houssian, were anticipating a "great boom" from the Vancouver Olympics. Whistler was hosting the skiing and snowboarding events.

But the boom never materialized -- "It was pretty dead," she says -- and by April, she says Houssian had met with Fawcett and directed him to reduce the herd.

"I was told the company was going to fold unless we took drastic action. The drastic action would be the immediate disposal of half the herd," Fawcett wrote on the PTSD site. "There is no more money and the owners would only continue if we did the reduction and went with a new business model, less dogs, less costs. These were my family."

His confidante says the goal was to sell 50 dogs, adopt out 50 dogs and put down the 50 oldest and sickest dogs. And if the adoptions and sales fell short -- which they ultimately did -- then what?

"I think that Bob's fear would be that if those targets couldn't be reached, then life would be virtually over for the entire kennel."

The workers' comp report indicates that Fawcett initially sought help from a local veterinarian, but the vet "refused to euthanize healthy animals." And the confidante says Fawcett followed through on the orders because "he felt a responsibility to the dogs."

"To put down even a single animal is heart-wrenching and … he didn't want to subject anyone -- he didn't want anybody else to have to go through it," she says.

Houssian declined interview requests, but in a statement to "Outside the Lines," responding to suggestions that the cull was carried out to keep the business running, the company wrote: "Your statement regarding the reasons for reducing the kennel population is inaccurate."

When the killings became public in January, a joint statement from Houssian and Fawcett appeared on the company's website. They wrote that Fawcett "was estimating 50 dogs would be euthanized," and "there were no instructions given to Fawcett as to the manner of euthanizing dogs on this occasion." The statement added that those dogs were either "too old" for work in a dogsled operation, "sick" or just "not adoptable."

In an editorial published in The Vancouver Sun, Houssian wrote that he accepted "moral responsibility." Then, in an audio interview with the Sun, he said he was horrified by the cull but suggested he was merely the financial backer of Howling Dogs, that Fawcett had total operational control and that he hadn't known any details of the killings.

"I was partnered with what I believed to be a professional in the business and I essentially trusted him," Houssian said. "It's very hard to believe that the man that I know, you know, could have acted in that way, and it's just very difficult to reconcile. This is a man with a big heart."

Several weeks before the story broke, on the PTSD message board,
Fawcett had summed up the killings by saying, "I have had to execute and watch most of my best friends die."

Fawcett also wrote of his current state, "I cut myself to have some feelings, drink to have feelings otherwise I'm pretty dead emotionally. I can't sleep, I have regular flashbacks, I sometimes drop when I hear a dog bark, and gun shots freeze me solid."

his was not the first time Bob Fawcett had euthanized his sled dogs. In fact, both on the PTSD site and in the workers' comp claim, Fawcett admitted he had taken on the task of killing "injured" or "older" members of the herd in the past, as well as "unwanted puppies." Usually it was just a single dog, but "on rare occasions he has euthanized four or five at a time."

It is legal in Canada to kill an animal as long as a person does not "willfully cause unnecessary pain." As well, it is an accepted practice by some within the sled dog industry to put down ill or injured dogs with a single gunshot to the head. Even the American Veterinary Medical Association acknowledges the use of a well-placed single shot as an acceptable form of euthanasia.

Moriarty knows the law well, both as a lawyer and in her role as the head of cruelty investigations for the BCSPCA, which spent about $250,000 to investigate the Whistler incident. And while she acknowledged that some of the dogs found in the mass grave showed signs of being put down humanely, many others did not.

For Moriarty, the workers' comp report pretty much says it all.

"If that's not pain and suffering, crawling out of a mass grave and having half your face blown off, I'm not sure what is," she says. "… No wonder he's suffering nightmares. I had nightmares after reading it. Does that excuse his behavior? At any time could he have said no? Absolutely."

Lindsay Rovegno, a producer for ESPN's Enterprise/Investigations unit, contributed to this story. Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise/Investigations unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.