Slowly, Slowly, Slowly

In the summer of 2016, 11 Finnish tourism companies came together to work in conjunction with the Multidimensional Tourism Institute (MTI) of the University of Lapland in a project called ”Animals and Responsible Tourism: Promoting Business Competitiveness through Animal Welfare”. This was the culmination of a 3 year goal, by Anna, to bring companies to the table to challenge current practices in sleddog welfare and to develop transparency in standards to customers, moving forward. Whilst Anna's focus was exclusively on sleddogs, the project decided to also incorporate the other key arctic animals used in Finnish tourism services (horses, reindeer, wild-animals (both in hunting and in 'watching'), etc).

The primary part of the project's funding came from Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation – under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Each participating company also contributed at least €1000 to be part of the project, in addition to making the financial and time commitment to travel to meetings across Lapland over the course of the 2 year project.

The 10 participating Finnish tourism companies, in addition to Hetta Huskies / CAPE Lapland Oy, are Lapland Safaris, Harriniva, Ranua Wildlife Park, Arctic Reindeer, Arctic Husky Farm, Northern Gate Safaris, Nurminiemen Ratsutila, OFF-Piste Adventures, Polar Lights Tours and Ruska Laukka. Three international partners are also collaborating closely:

. David Fennell, Professor, Brock University, International Institute for Animal Ethics (IIAE)
. Joonas Rokka, Associate Professor of Marketing, EMLYON Business School
. Marloes Van de Goor, International Institute for Animal Ethics (IIAE)

The main objectives of the project are:

. to increase understanding of animal welfare as part of responsible tourism businesses
. to examine quality certifications and standards including animal welfare criteria
. to study consumer values in relation to animals and their use in tourism and
. to create knowledge of animal welfare principles relating to tourism in Northern Finland specifically

To follow project progress and outcomes, please follow the Animal Tourism Finland blog. There are a number of webinars scheduled over the coming months that look at different project issues. One of the first webinars was with Pasi and you can see that video (in Finnish but with subtitles) here.. You can also follow snapshots of the project's progress through twitter.

Quality in Animal Tourism Services

Quality in an animal-based tourism service can be summarized in a general perspective in three ways:

From the Animal’s perspective: their personalities and species-specific needs (feeding, care, safety, training, etc.) in relation to their work, working environment and equipment.
From the customer’s perspective: the safety of the service and the cleanliness of the service environment.
From the employee’s perspective: having sufficient resources, transparency in the operations and ongoing monitoring and training possibilities.

Since Finland aims to continue to lead the way in animal-based tourism in Scandinavia, we need to ensure that we are operating at the highest possible quality level. And, since animals are the core part of the business of many tourism companies operating in Northern Finland, quality starts with animals and their welfare since there are straight links from this to service quality and customer satisfaction. Essentially, when the animal is doing well, the customer, employees and entrepreneurs all do well. At the same time, both management and employees need to share the same values and philosophies concerning the treatment of animals. When either the animals or employees are treated more as resources or objects than as parts of the wider team, problems develop.

This project, therefore, approaches the issue of optimal animal welfare from a pragmatic perspective that makes good business sense. Ultimately, the way to drive change in any industry is to incrementally work towards a change in perspective until such point - the tipping point - that the new perspective becomes the norm. If the long-term aim (of Anna's) is to challenge and improve the existing standards of selddog welfare in Finland (and then in Scandinavia, and then...), there is no option in the Finnish system but to start the process by driving this type of collaborative learning. Ultimately, there will need to be an incentive for those companies which are not inherently and philosphically driven by a desire to have high standards to make a change. From a business perspective, the easiest way of driving that change is to make the financial implication of not conforming, higher.

I believe that the development of a) base and b) optimal standards that are mandatorially transparent to the public and against which public will make their selection criteria when choosing between sleddog businesses, is one way of achieving this. However, what we don't want to do is to scare the public so much in the process of raising awareness, they believe that participation in the sport 'per se' is bad. Should that happen, all of the sleddogs on even the high quality farms would effectively be put at risk. This is the route that PETA and many animal activitists constantly drive towards but it is clearly and fundamentally the wrong approach and one that absolutely does not put the needs of the dog first.

Although we have explained in these pages that the development of optimal standards - ones that are neither too grey nor too black and white - and a means against which to assess them, is definitely going to be a challenge, it is one that the industry needs to drive internally. There are many GREAT sleddog farms out there and animal rights activists would be better off campaigning for a surge in interest in geriatric sleddog care than in a ban on the industry itself. When I asked our vet if she thought that keeping sleddogs on farms was cruel she said 'absolutely not'. It is more cruel to keep an active dog that is bred to love to work in a family setting. However, the optimal would be that they could work as long and hard as they desire during their working lives and retire to a sofa when they are at the point that they would appreciate it (and not destroy the house in the process!).

A musher's response to PETA's continuous anti-selddog campaigns

In November 2016, it became apparent that there was to be yet another 'expose' on conditions in sleddog farms - primarily linking back to known controversies and abuses in previous cases over the years (eg in Whistler). The expose this time is materialism through an anti-sleddog film which is ironically to be released in December at the Whistler Film Festival. It was apparently filmed under false pretenses on a number of premises and at a number of races and has the backing of PETA and other extremist animal rights campaigners. To me, whilst it is good, on one hand, that people within the community are forced to talk as a result, it is not good if the ultimate outcome is that it puts sleddogs themselves in jeopardy. And that is the fear with campaigns like the anti-elephant riding / swimming with dolphins ones, if applied to sleddogs.

We are Mushers and we are Proud

Mushers are a generally misunderstood group of people, often quiet, reserved individuals…not always fans of large groups or society. People don’t understand how we can travel for miles into the wilderness, with only the company of our dogs on our team and the love and support of our families and handlers, who become family, at home rooting for us to be safe and return home victorious. The public doesn’t understand why we have so many dogs, how we can possibly know all of their names and how in the world can we possibly take care of ‘all those dogs’.

We in fact find a society within our kennels, with our dogs, fellow mushers, and all the families involved. What they don’t understand is that ‘all those dogs’ are our family, our village, our hearts living outside our bodies. We not only know their names, we know their personalities, when they are happy and when they might be sad. We learn their quirks, insecurities and where we can work with them to be their very best. We know them, and they most certainly know us. It’s not a chore to take care of them any more than it’s a chore to feed, clothe and nurture our human babies.

This is a lifestyle, not an occupation a career or a business. We are a community of people, children, dogs and nature. A lifestyle lived by few and understood by fewer. Our dogs are our coworkers, our friends and a furry neck to nuzzle when things just get too hard in the world. They understand us and we them. We fit into a space all our own, the dogs not quite dogs and the humans not quite like everyone else. But in that space, we all find our home, together.

I was not raised a musher, I married one. He wasn’t raised a musher, but he was born to be one. Few answer their call to follow this passion, this lifestyle, and even fewer make it their true life’s work. Who are we? We are tough, we are compassionate, we are true animal and nature lovers, we are happy with little, but will give everything we have to a visitor. We love our lives, our dogs and our lifestyle. Many will misunderstand us, and that’s ok… But we are Mushers and we are Proud.
Gina Phillips, Krabloonik Dogsledding, CO.