NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C. – A man who pleaded guilty to the slaughter of dozens of sled dogs will not spend time in prison, a judge has ruled, concluding the man had the “best interests” of the dogs at heart when he culled the pack near Whistler after a slump in business following the 2010 Olympics.
But while Judge Steve Merrick said he agreed with a psychiatrists’ assessment that Robert Fawcett’s actions were the result of mental instability, he noted: “(You) ought to have anticipated the possibility of the horrific circumstances that could result.”
“It is beyond comprehension as to how this could have occurred,” said Merrick.
The devastating aftermath from the April 2010 killing was laid bare in provincial court for the first time Thursday by Fawcett’s lawyer, who described how hard it was for his client to even listen to details of killing his beloved animals again.
“I will never stop feeling guilty for the suffering that the dogs endured that day,” said defence lawyer Greg Diamond, quoting his client.
“I feel like part of me died with those dogs.”
Fawcett admitted in August to killing the dogs in a gruesome tableau over two days following a post-Olympic slump in sales. Court heard he felt forced into the decision when the owners of Howling Dog Tours put an “absolute freeze” on spending, except for food and the bare minimum of labour.
At that point, Fawcett was working 150 hours over two weeks to care for the animals and watching their conditions deteriorate to the point where they were fighting and killing each other in their kennel.
“In part, he accepted the burden because he felt he could do it compassionately and he did not want that burden placed on anyone else,” Diamond said.
“He gained the fortitude to do it based largely on the vision the remaining dogs could have a happy life and it was for the greater good.”
Fawcett huddled into himself with his arms crossed during the proceedings. Women in the gallery openly sobbed, and at one point, there was an outburst that was met with a sharp reprimand from the judge.
Fawcett pleaded guilty to one count of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals, which relates specifically to the deaths of nine dogs. More than 50 dogs were exhumed from a mass grave in May 2011 as part of a massive forensic investigation by the B.C. SPCA. Court heard most of the dogs that were shot did not suffer.
Animal euthanasia is legal in Canada.
The defence supplied 30 character references to the judge that described Fawcett’s “admirable dedication” to the dogs, as Diamond asked the court to consider probation but no jail time.
He argued the sentence should be more related to rehabilitation, noting his client has suffered permanent mental damage and has become an “international pariah,” partly due to intense media scrutiny.
He said his client has attempted suicide, has tattooed a ring of dogs around his arm to remember their lives and still shudders when he hears a dog bark.
He said the one “silver-lining” that has resulted from the ordeal is legislative reforms that give B.C. some of the toughest animal cruelty laws in the country and set out guidelines related to the retirement of dogs.
Earlier, the Crown also urged perspective, noting that facts supercede emotions.
Lawyer Nicole Gregoire asked for a sentence of three years probation with conditions, a $5,000 fine, and 200 hours community service.
“We’re looking at a very unique set of circumstances,” Gregoire said.
She, too, described how Fawcett suffered death threats, had a mental breakdown that sent him to an institution for two months and even had his young children and wife forced into hiding.
The horrific incident became public January 2011 after a worker’s compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder was leaked.
Gregoire said questions remain about the apparent contradiction of how someone who was caring and had a track-record of high-standards could inflict pain on them.
She pointed to a psychological assessment to provide some insight, noting the psychiatrist found Fawcett likely had been experiencing “high levels of distress” leading up to the cull, and likely had disassociated his emotions during the bloody event itself.
The 40-year-old has no criminal record, and the psychiatric assessment said the man is not a threat to people or animals.
The maximum sentence under the Criminal Code is five years prison time and up to $75,000 in fines.
Besides three years of probation, Merrick ordered Fawcett to pay a $1,500 fine, complete 200 hours community work service, and he may not participate in the sled dog industry or make decisions about euthanizing animals.