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Heartbroken sled dog owner breaks silence over OSPCA probe

'The bottom fell out of my world,' Georgeina Pierce says
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ORO MEDONTE — A Facebook video that depicted a wounded sled dog along with clips of a pair of aged Siberian huskies who looked a bit past their prime, accompanied by inflammatory commentary that suggested conditions at Windrift Adventures were inhumane, went viral a few weeks ago.

In the aftermath, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) launched an investigation of the Oro-Medonte Township kennel. Earlier this week, the OSPCA released a media statement announcing it had issued several orders “requiring the owners to provide care for the dogs, including insulated shelter, clean potable water in spill-proof containers, appropriate feed as recommended by a veterinarian and veterinary assessments of dogs requiring medical care.”

That “damning” media release “made it sound as if the dogs weren’t being fed properly, they weren’t getting water, their houses were no good,” said Georgeina Pierce, who owns and operates the Line 8 kennel with her son, Tom. “The bottom fell out of my world when I heard that. It was worse than the video.”

She said the experience has soured her relationship with the OSPCA. “I called them and said I have always co-operated with them,” she told OrilliaMatters Friday. She said the agency has “thrown (her) under the bus.” Worse, “they still have not said no charges have been laid or would be laid.”

The storm of controversy following the viral video has sparked a flood of spiteful, angry emails, nasty phone calls and hateful letters. “I’ve had people call me awful things. One person called and said they’re going to put balaclavas on, come in the middle of the night and take my dogs. They are my babies,” said Pierce, choking back tears. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Pierce and her son have operated their dog-sled business for almost two decades. At their Moonstone facility, they have 110 dogs – Pierce says she knows each by name – while at their Severn Township kennel, there are 60 dogs. The OSPCA is now investigating the Severn facility as well.

But Pierce is quick to point out that OSPCA staff regularly visit her operation. “They usually come every year, check on the dogs and do an inspection. There’s never been a problem.”

That’s why this week’s orders are so upsetting. She said, in the past, OSPCA inspectors had never questioned the dogs’ shelters, their diet or the way they access water. “I want to reiterate that an OSPCA officer comes every year and walks through. None of these things have ever been an issue.”

She said this is the first time they’ve ever demanded the barrels that serve as the dogs’ homes be affixed with flaps and straw be not just on the floor but up the sides of the barrels. “That was something that was never mentioned before,” she said.

The OSPCA has also decreed spill-proof cans because, at times, the dogs knock over their water containers. In addition, a veterinarian has “suggested” the dogs be fed kibble in addition to the raw meat they are typically fed. “The vet said they might be missing certain minerals and adding kibble to the diet would help. But all of these things were very minor.”

However, they didn’t sound minor in the OSPCA release, said Pierce. She was also fuming over the OSPCA’s decision to send a letter to supporters asking for money “to help fight” against enterprises such as Windrift. “That just makes me sick. They should not be doing that.”

Melissa Kosowan, acting associate director, communications for the provincial office of the SPCA, would not comment specifically about Pierce’s concerns. “We’ll refrain from responding to any allegation made by an individual or organization we are investigating for allegations of animal cruelty,” she said in an email to OrilliaMatters. “We can tell you that the Ontario SPCA has been entrusted by the Government of Ontario to enforce provincial animal welfare legislation since 1919. In regards to this investigation, to date, the organization has been cooperating and working towards compliance with the orders issued by the Ontario SPCA for the care of their dogs.”

Pierce said it’s not enough. She says people should be aware of what they could be unleashing. “Let’s say the SPCA walked in tomorrow and took the dogs, 90% of them would be euthanized,” she claimed.

She said the patrons’ video was disingenuous. It showed a dog named Koi, who had a puncture wound received when another dog bit it. “We have 110 dogs here and they showed the one with a puncture wound,” she said. “I was putting cream on it and taking care of it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. If he needed stitches, I would have taken him to the vet.”

The other two dogs shown in the video, she said, are her two eldest dogs. One has a liver problem and one has a kidney ailment. “They’re both about 15 and I don’t want to put them down until they’re in distress. They may not be beautiful, but they are not in distress.”

She said the vet did suggest enhanced care for the dog with liver problems. “But when she went through here, she said all my dogs are in good condition.”

As for those who think the dogs need more space, should not sleep outside or should not be “forced” to be sled dogs, Pierce believes otherwise. She said Siberian huskies, which all her dogs “are crossed with,” sport an extra layer of hair that insulates them from the cold. “They’re from Siberia where it’s -60,” she says. “I go down there in the middle of winter and they’re sleeping outside, in the snow. They’re bred for this.”

She said the dogs are tethered to steel poles with a 5’4” lead that gives them a 10-foot diameter to run. “They run on teams and get exercise in the winter three to four times a week,” she said. “They will run for two to three hours. They get a lot of exercise.”

And Pierce, who works at a Waubaushene truck stop, says she is not in it for the money. “Sled dogs are my passion, but I have to pay my bills,” she said. “They earn enough money to keep themselves, to pay for food, rabies shots and vet bills.”

Pierce said the video-sparked investigation “has destroyed our business.” Toronto Adventures, the company through which the patrons who aired the video booked their excursion, immediately severed ties with Windrift. “They’ve been here, they know we run a good operation,” Pierce said of Toronto Adventures, which she has partnered with for three years. “It’s very upsetting that they, in essence, stabbed us in the back.”

The Township of Oro-Medonte also investigated Windrift. The facility is inspected annually for its kennel renewal licence. A spokesperson said the township's top bylaw official was unavailable for comment Friday.

The ordeal has left Pierce shattered. She recently went shopping in Orillia and her son advised her to remove her hat because of its Windrift logo. “I’ll be honest with you, if they weren’t dogs and I didn’t love them so much, I’d walk away,” she said. “But I can’t walk away from them. I love them.”

Despite being 70, Pierce says she loves to be outside alongside the two volunteers and two full-time employees, on the idyllic 50-acre property, working with the dogs. “If I were to die down there with my dogs, I’d die happy.”