NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C. - A man charged with the slaughter of more than 50 sled dogs near Whistler, B.C., has pleaded guilty to an animal cruelty charge two years after the bodies were dug up from a mass grave near the ski resort town.
Former sled dog operator Robert Fawcett, who showed up sporting a short haircut and wearing a mismatched brown suit, entered his plea while standing next to his lawyer in a North Vancouver court Thursday.
He was charged with causing unnecessary pain and suffering to the animals.
Outside the courthouse, about a dozen animal-rights advocates accompanied by their pet dogs called for a prison sentence for Fawcett.
"If it's going to be a slap on the wrist, we are nowhere more forward than we were yesterday," said Ingrid Katzberg, referring to a possible sentence.
"It has to be something that is going to tell other people you are going to be punished if you continuously do this to animals."
Fifty-six dogs were dug up in a mass grave in May 2011 after details of the cull leaked out four months earlier.
The information came from a post-traumatic stress disorder claim made by Fawcett, the former general manager of Whistler-based Howling Dog Tours, through workers' compensation.
The claim suggested the dogs were killed to cull the sled-dog pack after a post-Winter Olympic slump in tour sales. The companies that employed the man, however, have denied such instructions.
A man calling himself Bob Fawcett also wrote on a PTSD website, describing a gruesome scene of how the dogs were shot or had their throats slit before being dumped in the grave.
The post claimed upwards of 100 dogs were slaughtered, although the BC SPCA said the investigation only ever turned up about half that number.
The Crown prosecutor has asked for a psychological assessment for Fawcett, who is expected to be sentenced in November.
Crown spokesman Neil MacKenzie did not specify what sentence the prosecution will ask for.
"The position that Crown takes in this matter will be a principled and fair position that is based on the circumstances of the offence, the seriousness of the offence, but also takes into the account the circumstances of the offender," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
"It's important to bear in mind the offence is not an unlawful killing of the animals per se," he added.
"It's a killing in a manner that caused unnecessary suffering to the number of the animals that were killed."
Fawcett and his defence lawyer Greg Diamond did not speak to the media.
Under the Criminal Code, the maximum sentence for causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal is five years of prison time and up to $75,000 in fines.
Marcie Moriarty, general manager of cruelty investigations for the BC SPCA, said this investigation was the biggest and most costly in the organization's history.
“We hope this plea results in swift and appropriate justice in this very disturbing case,” said Moriarty in a statement.
Moriarty said Fawcett could also face a lifetime ban on owning animals if convicted.
After the cull came to light, Fawcett and the company that bought his business saidthat many of the animals were old and ill, and efforts to have them adopted were not successful.
The slaughter sparked international outrage and prompted the B.C. government to bring in tough new anti-cruelty laws to protect sled dogs.
The new regulations include standards of care for health, nutrition, housing, working conditions and euthanasia.
Environment Minister Terry Lake, a veterinarian, chaired a task force that investigated the recreational sled-dog industry soon after the horrific cull came to light.
Lake said he is relieved the prominent case is coming to a close.
"I'm hopeful that the system will make sure that if there is a guilty plea or a guilty finding, that this person is treated under those new laws," he said.
Fawcett is expected to be sentenced on Nov. 22.
The SPCA says a memorial for the slain sled dogs is planned for Nov. 2.